by Michael A. Gonzales
While walking through the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2005 checking out the paintings of legendary artist Salvador Dali, singer/producer Bilal Oliver was moved. â€œThere were so many different layers and dimension to his work,â€ he explains. â€œPart of Daliâ€™s process was layering various images and I thought, man, Iâ€™d love to make music like that.â€ Bilalâ€™s latest disc, A Love Surreal (eOne), is a hat tip to the surrealism art movement that Dali once led.
Born and raised in Philly, Bilal grew up listening to everything from P-Funk to David Bowie to Phyllis Hyman, but nothing connected the way jazz did. â€œMy dad was a big John Coltrane fan,â€ says the married father of three sons. â€œHis best friend owned a jazz club. When I was young, I used to go with him and watch people do their gigs.â€
A few years later, Bilal attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts, whose alumni includes his friend Questlove. â€œBy senior year I was the jazz band vocalist and arranger,â€ he says. But Bilal had more to tackle, so he headed to New York after graduation. As a student at the New School, he met fellow student and pianist Robert Glasper. And though the two left-of-center artists would one day bless each otherâ€™s projects, Bilal first found solo fame as a part of the growing neo-soul movement. His 2001 debut, 1st Born Second (Interscope), was critically acclaimed and included collaborations with Dr. Dre (â€œFast Laneâ€) and late genius J. Dilla (â€œReminisceâ€). Although his follow-up project Love For Sale (2006) was never released and Interscope dropped him, the brother rebounded in 2010 with the superb Airtightâ€™s Revenge (Plug Research).
With Surreal, Bilal has constructed the perfect balance of soul, rock and, of course, jazz. â€œThatâ€™s the concept of surreal anyway,â€ he says. â€œBringing a lot of random things together and making it make sense.â€