Let’s Take It From The Top
An Interview with Bob James
by Paula Edelstein
| When you think of Bob James’ song repertoire, your thoughts will probably take you from one end of the musical spectrum to the other. From television and motion picture themes, to traditional styles of jazz to contemporary smooth grooves – he’s traveled many musical journeys. In the realm of songwriter, Bob James has written some of the most memorable songs that you’ll ever hear. In the realm of pianists, Bob is right up there with such great jazz pianists as Monty Alexander, McCoy Tyner, Mulgrew Miller, and several others that have populated the jazz galaxy for the past 40 years. In 1962, Bob James recorded a bop-ish trio set for Mercury, and three years later his album for ESP was quite avant-garde, with electronic tapes used for effects. After a period with Sarah Vaughan (1965-1968), he became a studio musician, and by 1973 was arranging and working as a producer for CTI. In 1974, James recorded his first purely commercial effort as a leader; he later made big-selling albums for his own Tappan Zee label, Columbia, and Warner Bros., including collaborations with Earl Klugh and David Sanborn.
With over 40 recordings as a leader of his own trios, and with numerous appearances as a session musician and co-founding member of the group Fourplay, Bob James has contributed more than his fair share of music, talent and jazz education around the world. Fourplay, an all-star group originally comprised of Bob James, guitarist Lee Ritenour, bassist Nathan East, and drummer Harvey Mason) was formed in 1991 after the quartet came together on part of James’ Grand Piano Canyon album. They have since recorded a number of CDs for Warner Bros. that have all been big-sellers, not surprising considering the popularity of James and Ritenour. Larry Carlton took over the guitarist’s spot in the late ’90s, first appearing in Fourplay on the band’s successful 1998 album, 4. That group’s music borders on jazz with some strong improvisations mixed in with large doses of pop and R&B.
Today Bob is still at his best on his KOCH label debut titled TAKE IT FROM THE TOP. He pays tribute to some of jazz’s greatest pianists with excellent renditions of their signature songs and songs that majorly influenced his appreciation and sense of jazz piano. We spoke to Bob during his promotional campaign for TAKE IT FROM THE TOP and here’s what he told us…so LISTEN UP!
P.E.: Hi Bob, it’s great to talk to you again and it’s even more rewarding to hear what’s been happening outside of your gigs with Fourplay. Take It From The Top is awesome and features you in a new trio setting paying tribute to some of your favorite pianists. Let’s talk about some of the songs and why you were inspired to include them on Take It From The Top. First off, your excellent arrangement of “Tenderly” must truly be one of the sweetest renditions on the 21st century jazz scene today. I understand that Oscar Peterson had a major influence on you during your college days. Have you ever had the opportunity to work with Oscar Petersen?
B.J.: Hi Paula. Glad you liked my new project. When I was first trying to develop my skills as a jazz pianist, I listened to many recordings. I wanted to understand how the great artists approached their music, and what gave each one their trademark style. Because it is such a personal form of expression, and because it’s improvised, jazz gives the performer more opportunities to develop their own individual way of communicating, and I can remember how much it fun was to try to determine who the artist was, or just be listening to a few phrases of one of their solos.
Oscar Peterson was one of the pianists I was listening to a lot, and the title of the album that I literally wore out, was “Tenderly.” Although Oscar primarily recorded in the trio setting, this project consisted of solo & duet performances and it really gave me a chance to study his technique and self-contained rhythmic power. I quickly learned that it would be a mistake to spend too much time trying to imitate his awesome physical technique, but still got a lot from feeling the energy and power of what it was like to really “swing!” In this version of “Tenderly” I was definitely not trying to sound like Oscar; I was thinking of it in the same way that I approached the other tunes, as an opportunity to pay my respects, and to show my appreciation for what I learned by listening to all of these great pianists.
P.E.: You couldnt have shown more respect than by paying such a great tribute Bob. Your playing is absolutely beautiful. “Nardis,” is another great tune from another great pianist; the inimitable Bill Evans. You’d recorded this song previously on your first album BOLD CONCEPTIONS – and now have revisited it 40 years later! Why, of all the songs that Bill Evans made into jazz standards, did “Nardis” have such a profound effect upon you?
B.J.: Bill was the other jazz pianist I listened to the most. And “Nardis” was obviously a tune that inspired him, because he recorded it so many times, with so many different approaches. In fact, although he’s not credited for it, I’d be surprised if he didn’t share in some part of the composition of that song, since he was working with Miles Davis at the time, and was a big influence on his music. I find “Nardis” to be an endlessly challenging tune for solo exploration, because it sets a haunting mood, and was an early example of the shift away from standard chord progressions of popular tunes, toward a more modal linear approach. And yes, I was shocked when I realized that it had been 40 years since I made my first attempt to record that piece. It certainly is a tribute to its strength that I still find it exciting to play and to experiment with.
P.E.: “Poinciana,” is highly touted as Ahmad Jamal’s trademark piece and your rendition here is ever bit as stunning. Bob, you’ve written many great songs and many journalists have assigned several songs as your signature piece. What song do you consider your “signature” song?
B.J.: Once our music reaches the public, it takes on a life of its own. Privately we may have our own favorites but if you’re lucky enough to earn a “signature piece” it is because your listeners heard it and singled it out. In my case “Angela,” the theme song from the Taxi television series, has continued to be the one that my audiences most often ask for. In no small measure because of the vast amount of people that heard it around the world through the syndication of the successful series.
P.E.: That is definitely one of our favorites and is still included in many performing arts high schools and college-level courses that teach scoring for television or motion pictures. At the other end of the musical spectrum, you’ve smooth-grooved with some of the best musicians on the contemporary jazz scene but Take It From The Top is definitely a straight-ahead jazz set. You’re playing with James Genus on bass and Billy Kilson on drums both of whom have quite an extensive history as straight-ahead jazzmen. Why did you choose to arrange these songs as straight-ahead jazz pieces instead of smooth jazz pieces?
B.J.: Since the end of the bebop era there’s been a struggle, mostly unsuccessful, to come up with names that adequately represent the different stylistic changes that have taken place in contemporary jazz. Most every jazz fan understands historically what the terms Dixieland, Swing, Bebop represented, but in the last 30 years, an unfortunate polarization has taken place, with the “serious” camp on one side of the fence and the “popular” on the other. And the names that have been coined to represent the newer styles have had the effect of being divisive rather than informative. Yes, it was a great thing when jazz began to be accepted as America’s unique art form and was liberated from only being heard in clubs, and shifting from dance halls to concert halls. But some of the best aspects of early jazz will never be well suited to the confines of formal concerts or academia. And it is for that reason that I find the term “straight-ahead” so misleading and even prejudicial, as it has been applied to only one stylistic approach. It seems to imply that those not playing in a classic post-bebop style are somehow going down a crooked or less than ideal path. To make matters worse, the most recently coined phrase “smooth jazz” comes not from the jazz community but from the business of commercial radio marketing and advertising. So now there’s a whole generation of fans who rarely ever get the opportunity to hear what jazz is like when it covers both the rough & smooth territories. Is straight-ahead jazz never smooth? Do smooth jazz artists never get rough? It’s all kind of silly in the final analysis. And I’m sure this long-winded answer was not what you were looking for to a simple question about my CD. The shorter answer would have been that, although the instrumentation was the traditional jazz piano trio format and the tunes were standards, I tried to approach my performances stylistically in the same way I always do–as a jazz musician now living in the 21st Century and trying to respond spontaneously to everything that goes on around me.
P.E.: As a jazz educator, what courses would you include in a jazz piano curriculum?
B.J.: The most important would be to develop the basic technical skills and I’m a believer that a good solid classical education provides the best opportunity to accomplish that. Learning the real meaning of the more mysterious jazz words that elude even the best musicians from other genres, like “swing” or “groove,” is best accomplished by getting out and playing in a “live” group situation, in my opinion.
P.E.: Which course do you feel is the most important one for an aspiring jazz pianist to study most: improvisation, melodic phrasing, or the history of jazz?
B.J.: After acquiring lots of technique, those three are vital, but I would suggest reversing the order…learn about the history by studying the great classic recordings, learn how those great artists re-interpreted and manipulated melodic phrases, and finally armed with those skills, venture out on your own and improvise!
P.E.: Brilliant! Now that you’re on a new label KOCH can your fans expect to hear more straight-ahead and swinging jazz piano in the trio format on the road?
B.J.: Woops, I guess I’ve already spilled the beans about my hang ups with those terms. Let’s just say I plan to keep marching straight-ahead down the same path I’ve been heading throughout my career, trying to swing as hard as I can. I love playing in the trio setting and hope to keep a balance between that format and also playing in some larger groups that give me the opportunity to collaborate with my favorite guitarists, saxophone players, etc., etc., etc.
P.E.: That’s a date we’re looking forward to hearing for sure. Will you continue to work “live” with Fourplay?
B.J.: Yes, definitely! We’re currently planning a tour for the fall to showcase the new CD project JOURNEY which we just finished recording in Los Angeles.
P.E.: Well there you have it folks. The great Bob James doing what he does best and sharing his great music with jazz lovers. Thank you so much for the interview Bob and great luck at Koch and with Take It From The Top and JOURNEY! We look forward to hearing you in concert.
B.J.: Thank you Paula.
You can keep in touch with Bob James and Fourplay at http://www.bobjames.com