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Bob James: Piano Player

R.J. DeLuke By

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I like to get out there on the road and have that energy, and a little bit of danger, of a live performance. —Bob James
In a career that spans about five decades, Bob James has made an impact on a variety of musical genres. His roots are in jazz, but he has run the gamut from playing avant-garde jazz on the outer fringes—which he was doing when discovered by Quincy Jones—to composing and arranging for a variety of people in the jazz and pop worlds.

He did extensive work for the well known CTI Records and has won Grammys recording with the likes of David Sanborn and Earl Klugh He's worked on hits by Grover Washington Jr., Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Kenny Loggins and others. And then, of course, he composed the music for the hit TV series Taxi and its title song that has followed him around since, known by people around the globe even if many do not know James wrote it.

Now, at the age of 78, James has taken a different path. Not a new path. He's done it before, but not in a while. He's quieted down the busy life of a sought-after collaborator. James has produced a jazz trio CD and is enjoying himself touring with just two mates.

"It seemed a good time for me to explore what I was going to do," says James from his home in Minnesota, away from the country's major music cities. "For many years, the main part of my dream has been to perform in a classic trio setting, where the piano is the prominent instrument and has control over the musical direction. On lots of other projects where I collaborated, I discovered how much I like being an accompanist."

Even with the group Fourplay, a very popular group he co-founded that blends jazz, pop and funk, his role leaned to support and arranging. "I collaborated recently with David Sanborn, In that role, the piano plays a significant part, but not the main role. I didn't know whether I'd become cowardly and was not ready to commit to it, but suddenly the timing seemed right. Actually, there was one particular booking last fall in New York where I played a week at the Blue Note with this same rhythm section that ended up on my album project (Billy Kilson on drums and Michael Palazzolo on bass). We had such a good time and I felt so comfortable playing some new music I composed. The audience response gave me more encouragement. So I decided to plunge in and do it."

The result is Espresso. It follows about 58 albums and many awards through the years. It had been about 13 years since his last trio record.

"I gradually realized it had been such a long time since I made a trio under my own name. Many things got in the way of it. I've been involved with the Fourplay group for many years. We tour and we've been recording, so I've been very active with that. Very sadly when Chuck Loeb passed away last year, that put us in hiatus and made it clear the members of the group would be pursuing our own solo projects."

The group was formed in 1991 with Lee Ritenour on guitar. He left in 1997, when Larry Carlton came in, Loeb joined in 2010 and died in 2017.

The trio toured before recording the music and it proved beneficial. Says James, "Several of the songs that ended up on this album I had prepared and we were already doing it live. That's something for many years I've talked about. Because so many of my album projects, including the Fourplay albums, the music was created in the studio first, then re-created live, in performance. That's a whole different challenge. I can remember on those projects the compositions took on a different vibe when we played in front of a live audience. They became more loose and more developed. I often had that feeling of wishing that we had taken those same compositions and gone on the road first before going into the studio. In this particular situation, I had the opportunity to do that. That's one of the things I really liked about the process this time out."

He had played with Kilson before and was glad to get the versatile drummer on board. "He's brave in the way he approaches an instrument," says the pianist. "I remember the first couple times I played with him, he was being respectful and a little bit more obedient. As soon he started to get mischievous and irreverent, I immediately told him that's what I liked and wanted. So we've become good friends and it was great getting him involved in this project."

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