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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.

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