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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."

The bassist he discovered while working in Detroit. He liked Palazzolo's approach and watched him develop. By the time the trio did a gig in New York at the Blue Note before recording Espresso, "he was so confident and clear in his playing in a way that I just love. I love the combination in the rhythm section of having a new young, fresh guy with fresh ideas, and then the experience of Billy Kilson, giving him some grounding and giving them the opportunity to explore each other in the rhythm section groove mode. Putting them together ended up affecting my playing... I'm proud to introduce him and I predict a bright future for this kid. He's got a great attitude. He's humble. He works really hard. Every time I play with him, he's getting better and better."

James is excited about the new recording, "I feel very strongly that it's a good representation of the direction that I wanted to go in my life. I wanted to be adventurous and I wanted to be respectful of the good fortune that I've had to have a solid audience of people that wants to hear what I do. I believe this record is pretty eclectic. But it doesn't all go down the same path. It's got smoothness and it's got roughness. It isn't always limited to the acoustic trio sound. I feel that my trio was the nucleus of it, but there are some parts like "One Afternoon" [and "Submarine"] that are much more produced with an orchestral kind of sound. In context with the whole album, it represents what I think about music and what I like to go public with."

It also includes a new arrangement of "Mr. Magic," which he played on and arranged. "It's very different from the original. In that way, I like punching up the fact that I was very involved in that piece, which became such a hit piece for Grover Washington. I heard it played so many times in so many bars and everywhere else, all over the world, that I thought it was time to explore it in a different way. Change the time signature. Change the groove and hopefully give it a bit of fresh life. I enjoy playing it live and asking the audience if they even recognized what that tune was. Most of them who were fans of that piece, they get it after awhile, even thought there's no saxophone on it."

The band will tour the U.S. and Japan this year and their may be more in 2019. Getting back with Fourplay, with another guitarist [possibly the return of Ritenour, he hinted] will be factor in how much the trio gets out next year.

But James likes the road, not matter the situation.

"At this time in my life [he'll be 79 on Christmas day] it keeps me feeling young. As long as I can keep doing it, I like to get out there on the road and have that energy, and a little bit of danger, of a live performance. You don't know what's coming next. I still love this process very much... As long as I'm able to do it, I don't mind hitting it hard. I'll put up with some delayed flights and whatever else, for that opportunity to keep playing music."

James started his musical odyssey in Marshall, Missouri. His older sister was taking piano lessons and he would mimic what she was doing. His mother noticed the natural talent and started him with piano lessons at the age of four. Though he was in a small town, James had good teachers.

"We did music theory and a lot of things that helped me tremendously further down the line," he recalls. "I had the chance to get prepared as a musician very early in my life. It definitely changed my life, for sure. I don't think I remotely considered anything else. By the time I was midway through high school, I was determined I was going to pursue music one way or the other."

James attended the University of Michigan and was frustrated they didn't have much of a jazz department. He transferred to Berklee College of Music, but was disappointed, and ended up returning to Michigan where he earned a bachelor's degree and master's degree in composition. In the early 1960s, he was playing with the jazz trio that experimented with the music. In 1963, "We decided we wanted to go compete at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival, more to throw this wild, avant-garde music out there and watch the reaction of the people who expected a much more conventional jazz approach. One of the judges was Quincy Jones. Another judge was Henry Mancini. So it was a distinguished judges panel."

"The avant-garde aspect of our playing was definitely getting their attention. But we were playing good enough in the conventional sense that we prevailed and won the festival award as a group and all three of us won individually. It catapulted me into having the confidence to go ahead and jump out to New York. In the meantime, Quincy signed me to do an album. He was an A&R man for Mercury records at the time. So I made my first record early on, in 1963, called Bold Conceptions. It had a combination of our version of avant-garde jazz, with some straight-ahead stuff also," says James.

It vaulted his career as an important player, writer and arranger with Grammys for One on One with Klugh and Double Vision with Sanborn. So many highlights. Among them was a four and a half year tenure with the legendary Sarah Vaughan.

" It was great. I often refer to that time as my second college education. She was such a phenomenal musician in addition to being a brilliant jazz singer," James says. "She also played piano very well. So she could sit down at the piano bench and show me what I was doing wrong and humble me at any point whenever I wasn't doing what she needed. That in itself was an education.

"She was also very moody. I could feel the difference in the way she would sing when the trio was inspiring her or when we, for whatever reason, weren't in the groove or our tempos weren't quite right. I could hear the level of her performance go down when we weren't giving her what she deserved, what she needed. That was great motivation to get better. I could feel it for those four years—how great she sounded when we really had the groove happening. It was fun and very inspiring."
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