How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Albums by Bob James come in two flavors.
One is polished, professional and predominantly safe smooth jazz featured on most of solo output and all of his collaborations with the "supergroup," Fourplay. This is where James has established his reputation as one of the more reliably radio-friendly musicians in the business.
The other side which is consistently more interesting, is his more creative outings which he demonstrates through his straight-ahead trios, Straight Up (Warner Bros., 1995) and Take It from the Top (KOCH, 2004), his piano solos and duets album, Dancing On the Water (Warner Bros., 2001) and Joined At the Hip (Warner Bros.,1996), a fiery collaboration with saxophonist Kirk Whalum that is far more aggressive and passionate than most of either artist's usual output.
James can create melodic, but listless elevator jazz when he's just going through the motions with the best (and worst) of them, but when he comes up with a glittering gem like Angels of Shanghai, it's obvious he hasn't entirely given up following his artistic muse for the sake of commercial crossover appeal. He doesn't abandon the ability to craft a shiny, happy piece of pop jazz as the lead-off track and "Celebration" sounds as if he's covering familiar ground yet once more. Yet with the exception of one utterly unnecessary lapse (the Nathan East ballad, "Endless Time," which sounds like a Fourplay outtake), Angels of Shanghai is a pleasing East-meets-West blending of American jazz and Chinese folk music.
The "angels" as James describes them in the liner notes were five students from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and the collaborations were recorded during two sessions in 2004 and 2005. The Chinese students played the er-hu (a two-string violin), pipa (similar to a lute), guzheng (a cross between a harp and a zither) and the dizi (different sized bamboo flutes).
The results begin to kick in as James weaves his piano with the Asian modes and scales of the Angels on the charming "Dream With Me" and "Angels Theme: The Invention of Love." The music throughout Angels of Shanghai is among some of the loveliest and beguiling James has ever made and the charms of this inspired collaboration become more apparent with repeated listens.
James seems invigorated by his cross-cultural band and the proof comes through with the reworking of his biggest hit, "Angela (Theme from Taxi)" which takes a cab ride through Chinatown and comes out on the other side with a little New Age sheen on it.
Angels of Shanghai is a welcome diversion from the predictability of James' largely undemanding excursions with Fourplay and the bulk of his solo work. Though it's safe to presume that he's unlikely to make a complete break from the commercially successful, but musically slight jazz he is best known for, it's good to know that he is still capable of throwing a curve ball to the expectations of those who would peg him as just a proficient creator of forgettable background music.
Track Listing: Celebration; Gulangyu Island; Endless Time; Theme "Onara" from "Daejangkeum"; Dream With Me; Angles' Theme: The Invention of Love; The Magic Paintbrush; Melodia: A Quiet Place for Two; Butterfly Lovers; Dialogues: The Universal Language; Angela with Purple Bamboo.
Personnel: Bob James: piano and synths; Jack Lee: guitar (1,2,3,4,10); Nathan East: bass (2,3,9), lead vocals (2); Harvey Mason: drums (7,10,11); Lewis Pragasam: drums (1,3,4); Ma Jia Jun: er-hu; Liu Zhen: er-hu; Li Li: pipa; Xie Tao: guzheng; Zhaq Qi: dizi; Lu Cong: dizi; Karen Han: er-hu soloist (9).