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. “There were so many different layers and dimension to his work,” he explains. “Part of Dali’s process was layering various images and I thought, man, I’d love to make music like that.” Bilal’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. “My dad was a big John Coltrane fan,” says the married father of three sons. “His best friend owned a jazz club. When I was young, I used to go with him and watch people do their gigs.”
A few years later, Bilal attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts, whose alumni includes his friend Questlove. “By senior year I was the jazz band vocalist and arranger,” 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 other’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 (“Fast Lane”) and late genius J. Dilla (“Reminisce”). Although his follow-up project Love For Sale (2006) was never released and Interscope dropped him, the brother rebounded in 2010 with the superb Airtight’s Revenge (Plug Research).
With Surreal, Bilal has constructed the perfect balance of soul, rock and, of course, jazz. “That’s the concept of surreal anyway,” he says. “Bringing a lot of random things together and making it make sense.”