Bob James: Following His Heart

Woodrow Wilkins By

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If you are being paid for your work, you are subject to the world of business, one way or the other. —Bob James
Bob JamesIf you've listened to contemporary jazz and its relatives over the last 30-plus years, chances are you've come across pianist Bob James. In fact, you don't have to be a jazz fan to have heard his music. He scored the soundtrack to the television series Taxi, including the hit theme song, "Angela. His career has placed him in the studio and on stage, as both a sideman and bandleader, alongside a virtual Who's Who of modern music. His companions have included David Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Maynard Ferguson, Nathan East, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Boney James, George Duke, Lenny Castro, James Genus, Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Harvey Mason, Billy Kilson, Lee Ritenour and his own daughter, Hilary James. In addition to his solo career, he is a founding member of Fourplay, which today consists of Carlton, East and Mason. Earlier this year, the Grammy award-winning keyboardist/pianist released Urban Flamingo (Koch, 2006). The album, which features, among others, Genus on bass and Kilson on drums, is a classy mix of jazz, pop and funk.

James recently shared some thoughts about his career and the new release with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz: Your early albums were numbered. Why was that?

Bob James: It was a fun way to sort of create a history. {Producer/Label Owner] Creed Taylor and I talked about a future situation in which someone buys your tenth album and hears your music for the first time. If they like it, they realize that there are nine previous ones to look for.

AAJ: On Maynard Ferguson's Conquistador (Columbia, 1977), you wrote and performed on "Soar Like an Eagle, which almost 30 years later is still something that gets a lot of spins. Is there a chance that you, like Lee Ritenour, Rick Braun and others have done with some of their classics, will record that with a fresh arrangement?

BJ: Wow, I haven't heard that tune in a long time. I'm flattered that it stuck with you for so long. You've got me intrigued to go back and check it out. I really like the idea of reinterpreting the same song from a new perspective.

AAJ: Which songs could we expect to hear on an album of Bob James updates?

BJ: At some point, I'd like to take a few of the Fourplay compositions that I've done and do them with a different arrangement. "Rain Forest [from Fourplay (Warner Bros., 1991)] comes to mind. I'm sure there are others. Also, the reverse would be fun. I've enjoyed playing "Westchester Lady in live performance with Fourplay.

AAJ: That was on the Casino Lights '99 (Warner Bros., 1999) set. Also on that album, you performed "Mind Games in an acoustic trio style, which you had recorded with Boney James in a textbook smooth jazz or instrumental pop format. What is it about jazz—whether from the artist's perspective or that of demanding fans—that musicians completely revamp a song for live performances, whereas in other genres, pop for example, people tend to want to hear—and the bands accommodate them—songs the way they sounded on the record?

BJ: "Mind Games [from Playin' Hooky (Warner Bros., 1997)] was one of the few recordings of mine where I used an outside producer, in this case Paul Brown. It was really his style of putting a rhythm track together in the studio, and it worked great on the recording. But I would have felt handcuffed trying to play it that same way with a live rhythm section. Nevertheless, at the time I knew there would be fans requesting to hear it, so even though I was on tour with a trio, I decided to just take the basic melodic riff and completely rearrange it. Of course, I was helped tremendously by the amazing acoustic bass line that James Genus played on that Casino Lights performance. He sounded like an entire rhythm section!

AAJ: We hear a lot about creative freedom. Artists have left major labels. Some have self-produced their albums. The Yellowjackets once went four years without releasing a new studio album because of it. How and why do things like this happen?

BJ: A very complicated question. If you are being paid for your work, you are subject to the world of business, one way or the other. As much as we all would like to have total creative freedom, still we live in the real world, and it doesn't always follow that audiences will want to pay for the things we do when we exercise our right to creative freedom. But there's nothing wrong with dreaming about that ideal situation in which we do exactly what we feel, and then get paid for it.

AAJ: What can be done to reverse the trend, giving all artists the freedom they need to record the music they feel? Can fans or the media help?

BJ: I'm still trying very hard to be an optimist. I believe artists do their best work when they follow their heart. And business executives with courage and vision should recognize that in order for great art to be creative there has to be an atmosphere of support and encouragement. The fans can help by recognizing that they need to be adventurous, too. It requires more commitment to form an opinion about something new and unknown. It's too easy to just accept other people's formulas about what is good or bad. I would encourage fans to seek out new experiences and stay open-minded.

AAJ: That was an issue a few years ago when Fourplay moved to Bluebird. Are you guys getting together for another project or have we heard the last of the supergroup?

BJ: We've just finished a new album for the Sony/BMG group. It will be called X and will be released in June.

AAJ: Let's talk about the new album. You've got quite a bit of range on running time between songs. Almost nine minutes on "Choose Me, seven on "Bobary Coast. How different is it to do songs like these, from a writer's perspective, than it is to do an album where almost everything clocks in at four minutes?

BJ: That arbitrary four-minute time limit was just another bit of handcuffing that resulted from record companies hoping to get a hit single. Radio station programming dictates that limitation, based on their perception of their listeners' attention span. Of course, also allowing for more commercial interruptions! When I have artistic freedom to do so, and I have been lucky to be in that situation most of the time, I prefer to let the flow of the music dictate when the song comes to an end. If the groove's going strong, why arbitrarily cut it off? We now live in the digital era where it's easy to just make a separate edited version anyway!

AAJ: It doesn¹t seem to matter who he¹s working with, you can always tell when Billy Kilson is on drums. Is that particular way he plays something you look for when you bring him in to do certain songs?

BJ: I'm glad to see that you obviously feel as I do about Billy. That's what I look for most in collaborating with other musicians. Someone who plays straight from their own heart, then they can't avoid sounding like themselves. It's been great to watch Billy grow and be more and more willing to do all those quirky, crazy things that make him so special as a drummer, regardless of who he's playing with at the time.

AAJ: What¹s the story behind "Niles A Head and "Bobary Coast ?

BJ: "Niles A Head was composed on the spot during a short interview I did while in London at the home studio of Richard Niles. He had asked us to play a tune during the interview, and instead of just doing something from my regular repertoire, I thought it would make it more special to "premiere" something hot off the press. It worked out so well, and I loved the performance that Billy and James [Genus] gave me so much that I wanted to include it "as is on this project.

"Bobary Coast was one of a series of tunes that I wrote to feature the Detroit gang that has become the nucleus of my traveling band. I found a good studio in Detroit, and they were all close to home and in their comfort zone. It was a very relaxed vibe, and I think it shows on the recordings of these songs. Sorry about the pun in the title. Couldn't resist that one!

AAJ: Hilary [James] has become a regular presence on your albums. Whose choice was it for her to work with you? How influential were you in her decision to sing professionally? What does she do when she's not with you?

Bob JamesBJ: Of course I'm a very proud papa, and am always excited to have the opportunity to share the music that Hilary and I make together. When I'm accompanying her singing, I sometimes feel like we are one person. Of course, she was bound to be influenced by growing up in a musical household, but she is very definitely her own person and makes her choices accordingly. She's been very busy for the last few years taking on the mother role, and making me a proud grandpa. Ava Marie is the new light of my life, and it's really amazing to watch each new phase of her young life. My guess is that Hilary will gradually begin to shift over to having more time to devote to music. My goal is to always be there to be supportive, whatever direction she chooses to take.

AAJ: Do you have a favorite song? Why?

BJ: "September Song comes to mind. One of many favorites. But I've reached the age where I can really appreciate the poignancy of that bittersweet lyric.

AAJ: Okay, let's play word association. What comes to mind when you hear: David Sanborn?

BJ: There's many pretenders, but only one of him.

AAJ: Money?

BJ: Retirement.

AAJ: Marcus Miller?

BJ: I regret that I haven't worked with him for so long.

AAJ: Programming?

BJ: Max Risenhoover.

AAJ: Kirk Whalum?

BJ: Creater of "Soweto, one of the most powerful jazz compositions I've ever had the privilege of performing.

AAJ: Smooth jazz?

BJ: Great when combined with rough jazz.

AAJ: Radio?

BJ: A necessary evil.

So there it is. Pragmatic, optimistic, humorous and, of course, exceptionally talented. That is the essence of Bob James. And it shows as well as ever on Urban Flamingo.

Selected Discography

Bob James, Urban Flamingo (Koch, 2006)
Bob James Trio, Take It From the Top (Koch, 2004)
Fourplay, Journey Fourplay, Heartfelt (Bluebird, 2002)

Bob James, Joy Ride (Warner Bros., 1999)
Various Artists, Casino Lights '99 (Warner Bros., 1999)
Bob James, Playin' Hooky (Warner Bros., 1997)
Bob James/Kirk Whalum, Joined at the Hip (Warner Bros., 1996)
Bob James, Ivory Coast (Tappan Zee, 1988)
Bob James/David Sanborn, Double Vision (Warner Bros., 1986)
Bob James, Touchdown (Tappan Zee, 1979)

Photo Credits:
Top Photo: Courtesy of Bob James
Bottom Photo: Denise Waichunas

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