When Bilal first burst onto the scene in 1999, he was quickly lumped in with the turn of the century’s neo-soul movement.
But that label was always too limiting for someone who grew up visiting jazz clubs with his father, can sing opera in multiple languages and cites the prog-rock of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis as an influence on his latest album, “In Another Life.” Bilal’s ability to shape-shift has made him a valued collaborator for artists including Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Robert Glasper.
amNewYork spoke with him as he prepared for a two-concert winter residency at City Winery.
You appeared to be on a path to stardom early in your career, yet it seems like you gained more fans by trying to lower your profile rather than appealing to the masses.
I look at it as a plus because I’m in a place where I can make music that I want. ... I really come more out of a jazz background, as far as improvisation is concerned. ... It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with style or swing but it’s the concept and way I approach my music. I see it more like soul music. If you listen to any soul singer that you like — let’s take Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye has so many inflections in his voice. You can hear a jazz inflection, you can hear gospel, the blues. Every soul singer you love, that’s what you hear. That’s pretty much what I do. ... With the way I approach my music, sometimes it’s not always marketable. But I’ve been fortunate enough to stay afloat somehow.
What are you planning for City Winery?
This gig is not a band I normally play with. This band is all just musicians I respect that are in New York. I love their approach; it’s a new approach to jazz music. ... The way I write my music is in real book style. It can be interpreted in any type of way. I’m always proud when I see another jazz musician play my song and have their own take on it. This gave me the idea to just hire jazz musicians and hear their approach.
How did you wind up working with Kendrick Lamar on “To Pimp a Butterfly”?
I met Kendrick in New York. We were in the same rehearsal studio. We kept in contact. I was supposed to work with him on his last album, “Good Kid,” but things didn’t work out. He had me in mind for this one.
Were you surprised by how that album helped your career?
Not really because it was good music. I felt it while we were recording it that it was something special. I like working with people where we’re in the same kind of frequency and vibe level. ... Working with Kendrick, it was cool, it was easy. We were thinking on the same wavelength.