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Bob James: Piano Player

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.


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