The Genie - Keyboard Wiz Bob James Talks To SJF

Tuesday, 04 September 2018 13:00 Charles Waring Print

   altDepending on which generation you belong to and where your musical allegiances lie, keyboard legend Bob James is either the father of smooth jazz or the godfather of hip-hop. Though ostensibly a jazz musician whose breakthrough came at CTI Records in the mid-1970s when he pioneered an accessible, radio-friendly brand of jazz fusion, this genial Missouri musician discovered in the late '80s that his music was being plundered for samples by hip-hop producers in search of ready-made grooves and break-beats. To date, James is the 14th most sampled musician of all time (in pole position is James Brown, of course), something which he's simultaneously both mystified by and tremendously proud of.  "I'm still shocked," laughs James, "but it's wonderful and a reminder to me that throughout my career as a composer who has attempted to handle my copyrights as well as I can, the more that you can keep control over your work, the better, because you never know when something is going to be at the right place at the right time."

Hip-hop's love affair with James' back catalogue over the last 30 years has undoubtedly been a lucrative source of income for the 78-year-old pianist, bringing in a steady stream of royalty payments that have certainly made his life more comfortable. But James is not one for resting on his laurels and has never, seemingly, contemplated retirement. Though his last solo album proper was in 2013 ('Alone: Kaleidoscope By Solo Piano'), he's not been idle, contributing to smooth jazz supergroup Fourplay's 2016 album, 'Silver,' and taking part in collaborations with alto saxophonist David Sanborn ('Quartette Humaine'), bass player, Nathan East ('The New Cool'), and flautist Nancy Stagnitta ('In The Chapel In The Moonlight'). Now, in the late summer of 2018  James has elected to return to the fray with a new solo venture, 'Espresso,' on the Evosound label. It's a trio album featuring the talents of bassist, Michael Palazzolo, and drummer, Billy Kilson. In the following interview, he talks at length to SJF's Charles Waring, not only about his new album but also key junctures of his storied career...



"I'm in a great mood," exclaims veteran keyboardist, Bob James, talking to SJF on the eve of what's going to be a long tour - taking in the USA (including Hawaii) and Japan - to promote his new album, 'Espresso.' "We had a rehearsal yesterday going through the new stuff that we'll be going to play for the first time from the record and I'm feeling very up about it," he enthuses with a palpable sense of excitement in his voice.  "I'm really looking forward to it," he continues. "I've got great enthusiasm for my trio mates, Billy Kilson, on drums, and Michael Palazzolo, who's just phenomenal, on the bass."

James has enjoyed a long and varied career that has brought him many accolades, including two Grammy awards. It began way back in the early 1960s when Quincy Jones signed the pianist and his trio to Mercury Records but it wasn't until the next decade, though, that the James' career really took off, when he graduated from arranger to solo artist on producer Creed Taylor's CTI label and his albums like 'One' and 'BJ4' put him in the vanguard of the jazz-fusion movement. Some of those heavily-sampled records also proved the sonic building blocks for hip-hop and helped to take James' music to a new audience.


His career, then, has been a long and winding journey that has seen him explore many diverse avenues. Significantly, his new album, 'Espresso,' sees him returning to the format that he began his career with 55 years ago. "My idea was to come back to the trio after having gone full circle and going down a whole bunch of different paths," he explains. "I've felt throughout my career that every time I returned the trio format it feels like the most classic way that I can express myself. I've developed a style that is based around a simple piano, bass and drums instrumentation. Even though I may have added to the arrangements or given some of the songs an orchestral feeling or some production elements, always at the root of it is the trio."

Playing alongside James on 'Espresso' are drummer, Billy Kilson, and bass player, Michael Palazzolo. Veteran Washington DC sticks man, Kilson, has played on several of the keyboardist's previous albums. "I love his craziness," laughs James. "You can't hold this guy down because when he really comes alive he has tremendous visual and musical personality. He's always thinking foremost about the groove, but when it comes to his time in the spotlight, he pulls out all the stops either with fills or soloing. I think I've been influential with him going way back when he and I first started playing together because I really encouraged that. I could hear that it was part of his style but at the time I was first playing with him he was conservative and a little more obedient and wanted to make sure he was during a good job so was holding back. But I kept encouraging him to let it all hang out. I'll even try to goose him a little bit to make him take both of us even further, and it became part of his personality. I've heard him when he plays with other groups and I kind of smile because I think I helped him have enough courage and confidence to bring out everything that is in his unique musical personality."

James is equally enthusiastic about his young bassist, 20-something Michael Palazzolo. "He brings a really important element - youth," laughs the keyboardist. "Having some youthful freshness in there is really great. I met him in Detroit a couple of years ago when I was playing a gig with a guitar player, Perry Hughes, a really wonderful musician whom I've known for a long time. Perry invited me to come down to play a gig at a small club and he had hired this young kid, Michael, to play bass. I remember liking him but I didn't really have an opening in my group at that time, so it took more than a year later before I was in a position to hire him again and during that time it was very dramatic to me to see how much he had improved and how much he was taking his instrument and everything so seriously. That made a very big impression on me. He just had a wonderful attitude and lots of energy. So I made up my mind that I wanted to use him more, and that included a gig last fall in New York City at the Blue Note where we played for a week. I asked Michael to play with me and it was at that time when it was very clear to me that he was the guy that really made me feel the best about my own music. So when I wanted to make an album, I chose Michael to do it with me."

In terms of his material, the album contains freshly-written original songs, plus some new interpretations of old favourites. Of the latter, there's a striking cover of 'Mister Magic,' the Ralph McDonald-co-written 1975 jazz/R&B hit for saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. "There was a little bit of a selfish reason that I had for doing 'Mister Magic,'" explains James, "because sometimes the people that were involved in that track behind-the-scenes are not necessarily remembered over a long period of time. A lot of people don't know that  I actually arranged it and was the music director that put that track together for Grover. So in a way I just wanted to remind my fans that I was very much involved with that original record and it was my original bass line on the record." 


With an absence of saxophone and emphasis on piano, James' revamp of 'Mister Magic' is notably different from the original. "I turned it upside down," he reveals. "I changed the time signature and the groove, adapting it into a 3/4 time signature, to put my own spin on it as a trio tune. It was really fun for me because also that song itself has been covered so many times and you hear it played by so many different bands it's almost become a standard in the contemporary jazz field and I wanted to give it my own style."

James also includes a new version of Fats Waller's 1930s hit, 'Ain't Misbehavin'.' He reveals that inspiration for doing it was to honour the memory of his late wife. "My wife always liked the old songs," he discloses. "She was a big Al Jolson fan and a fan of the music from that era. Whenever we would go to my studio, just the two of us, I would play music for her. She always preferred to have me play these old songs. She passed away a year and a half ago and so in some ways it was my reminiscence of the times that she and I spent together. 'Ain't Misbehavin'' was always one of the songs that she really liked and had me play for her, so it inspired me to choose it for that reason. Also, I think it fit into my idea of showing my fans that my tastes are very eclectic."


Arguably the most ear-catching of the album's covers is 'Submarine,' which is, in fact, a retooling of one of James' most-sampled songs, 'Nautilus,' which first appeared as an album track hidden way on his very first CTI album, 'One.'  "It's been such a crazy thing that has taken place with that song that no one was paying attention to when I first recorded in 1974," admits James. "It was almost an afterthought on an album where I got tremendous airplay for 'Feel Like Making Love,' my cover version of the Roberta flack song, and I had also done an arrangement of 'Night On Bald Mountain,' which Steve Gadd, who was just starting his career at that time, got a lot of notoriety from the phenomenal drum part he played on that. Both those two cuts were the things that got played and 'Nautilus' was just the last cut on side B of the LP, so it came as a shock to me, 20 years later, to discover that the rappers and the hip-hop community had found it and responded to the groove to give it a life of its own. I found out that it had been sampled hundreds of times in the hip-hop world. Never in a million years would I have anticipated that 'Nautilus' would have taken on this amazing life. By the time I got to do my trio album, I thought, 'Gee whiz, maybe I should try to take charge of this song again and sample myself, and turn the tables on the rappers.' So I'm delighted that I'm in a position where I am able to take control of it again and put my own spin on it - and the most fun for me is being able to take a sample of myself and know that I don't have to go to some record company and get permission to license it, because I already own it."


'Nautilus' is just one of a plethora of songs sampled by the hip-hop generation from James' CTI catalogue (James, by the way, was savvy enough to buy back the rights to his four CTI albums from CreedTaylor in 1977). Another notable much-sampled Bob James' cut is the keyboardist's instrumental version of Paul Simon's 'Take Me To The Mardi Gras,' whose intro, defined by a syncopated drum beat and clanging cowbells, has been given its own name, 'The Bells.'  "It ended up on so many different recordings too and it was another example of how could I possibly ever anticipated that?," explains James.  "There is an irony about both 'Take Me To The Mardi Gras' and 'Mister Magic' because Ralph MacDonald was the co-composer of /Mister Magic,/ and because I was only the arranger, I didn't have any copyright in it, so when it got sampled many times, as it did, Ralph MacDonald was the beneficiary of that sample. But I got even with him a little bit because Ralph was the cowbell player on 'Take Me To The Mardi Gras,' and didn't write the song. Thinking back on it, it really was a wonderful period of time when Ralph and I were on so many different recording sessions together and you never really knew which ones were going to turn out to be the successful ones."


Although James recorded a couple of albums in the early 60s, as the decade developed, he ended up doing more and more sideman work,  recording as a piano player for jazz legends Chet Baker and Sarah Vaughan. At the end of the 60s, he did a few sessions for Creed Taylor's A&M-funded jazz imprint CTI - including Quincy Jones' 'Walking In Space' album - and must have made a good impression because when Taylor re-launched CTI as an independent label in 1970, James, along with Don Sebesky, became the uber-producer's go-to arranger. His first notable gig as arranger for CTI was on Grover Washington Jr's 'Inner City Blues' album in 1971 (released via CTI's sister label, Kudu). By that time, he says, he had relinquished all hope of resuming a recording career under his own name.  "I had kind of given up on it," he confesses. "I got a job with Sarah Vaughan (as her accompanist), and that was a trio gig really but I was starting to shift my focus towards that kind of career and had not really anticipated that I would go out and try to carve out something as a solo artist until Creed Taylor decided to give me a recording deal in 1974."


No doubt impressed with James' contribution to albums by Grover Washington Jr, Hank Crawford, Johnny Hammond and Stanley Turrentine, Taylor gave James a shot as leader, which resulted in his debut album, 'One.' Its success took James by surprise. "I didn't have any plans to tour and still thought of myself more as an arranger and studio guy than I did as a solo artist," he says. "But that album had some commercial success, and almost forced me into having to change course and come up with the courage to embark on a solo career."

James has fond recollections of his time at CTI and is keen to pay tribute to the work of the company's founder, producer, Creed Taylor. "He was a great casting agent," reflects James. "He really had the foresight and the taste to bring great musicians and put them together in the studio, sometimes in unlikely combinations. I got the benefit of working with Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond. All these people at one time or another were coming through Rudy Van Gelder's studio which was where Creed Taylor did all of his recording. It was a tremendously stimulating and important time in my career to have that happen. Creed was very prolific in the sense that he just stayed out at that studio all the time and just kept making records and making records, and in a way it also proved to be extremely problematic for him because as a business it got out of control. He was trying to do too much and the business finally got the better of him. By that time, I was out of there and onto a different adventure in my life because I had switched over to Columbia Records and did a lot of work there in the late '70s and early'80s."


As well as making music that was a hybrid of jazz, funk, pop and R&B on his CTI albums, Bob James also took classical music themes and reframed them in a jazz context. Among his triumphs in this vein were his adaptations of Mussorgsky ('Night On Bald Mountain')  Johan Pachelbell ('In The Garden'),  Bizet ('Farandole'), and Henry Purcell ('One Loving Night'), which all featured on his four CTI LPs. "I definitely had an interest in classical music, I trained in it and studied it in college and today I still have a big, big, big love for the classical music repertoire," says James, "but I don't think I would have explored it that much if I hadn't got direct assignments from Creed Taylor (pictured above). He had a very specific feeling that he wanted to hear jazz artists interpret well-known melodies from a different genre, not just standards like 'Summertime' or 'I Got Rhythm.' There weren't that many straight-ahead jazz artists who were adapting classical themes and he saw me as being somebody  who could do that along with his other arranger, Don Sebesky, who also did a lot of stuff for Creed Taylor. Almost all of that classical stuff came from Creed loving to see how our audience would react to hearing those classical melodies reinterpreted in the jazz idiom."

What Bob James especially loved about his time at CTI was the creative latitude he was allowed by Taylor: "It was a wonderful time for me because not only did I get the assignment to be the arranger on the dates but I could pretty much choose the instrumentation and very often I could choose who the personnel were going to be too. I also would help Creed choose the material and we talked about that a lot. It was really a wonderful creative time for me and Creed did give me a lot of freedom."


One of James' favourite sessions from the era was the Grover Washington LP, 'Soul Box,' an ambitious double album, released by Kudu in 1973. "I had a lot of freedom to choose material," reveals Bob James.  "We were working with large ensembles, large string sections, and I could bring in woodwind and I could just let my imagination run pretty wild...and Creed let me do it." According to James, that particular album represented the cutting edge of audio technology."It was a fun era in the audio world back then," reflects the keyboardist. "I have really fond memories of that 'Soul Box' record because it  was during the time when surround sound and quadraphonic sound were being explored, and there was even a way that they could encode LPs where they had four channels of sound. We released that record on a four channel analogue tape. We couldn't figure out at first how to spread the music out, but most of the time we would have the string section come from the back, and then everything else would be in the front, but we did a lot of experimenting. We had the drums on the left channel, the bass on the right channel, saxophone in the centre and so on.  Sometimes we had even more than four channels and went beyond that into eight channels with sound coming from all over the place. It was a really exciting time....though only a very small percentage of our audience had the equipment to be able to play it back on those formats so it all fell by the wayside."


James also has vivid memories of working at sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder's famed New Jersey recording studio, which was not only favoured by Creed Taylor but was where the Blue Note and Impulse! labels recorded so many of their classic LPs. "Eccentric would be a good word to describe him," laughs James, recalling the studio's late founder, Rudy Van Gelder (pictured above), a former optometrist who became a major figure in the sonic development of recorded jazz. "Rudy was an extremely serious guy. He developed his own style of engineering, his own approach to doing it, and he built his own studio in his home. It was designed by one of (architect) Frank Lloyd Wright's protégés and was directly attached to his home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. So he would come through the door from his home to work in the studio and everything about it was uniquely his. He was meticulous - he never touched his microphones or the cables or anything else without having gloves on. He did so many things in an eccentric way. He hated people asking him what kind of equipment he was using so he would cover up the names on all of his equipment with tape, so you wouldn't be able to see what they were. He didn't want to talk about it and he was completely different from every other engineer who I've worked with before or since. But the results spoke for themselves. He had a sound and he also had a very strong bonding and collaboration friendship with Creed Taylor. The two of them spent so many years together creating music in that very unique way and also, Rudy mastered his own stuff too. He had the lathe to master LPs in his studio. He didn't farm any of that stuff out. He took it from the beginning to the end so everything was under his control."

Given the array of star names in the jazz, pop, and soul worlds that Bob James has worked with - everyone from Chet Baker and Paul Simon to Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack - it must be difficult singling out individual career highlights. Rather, he says the fact that still working in his sixth decade in the music business is a cause for celebration. "The highlight is, I'm still doing it," he laughs. "I'm talking to you at my advanced age and that feels like a real highlight. I've been making music for a long, long time and I've got a lot of memories and when you asked me these questions and we talk about different people, it comes back to me that I had a lot of opportunities to make music... and that's a highlight, too."  


Looking to the future beyond this new album, Bob James says there's a possibility that Fourplay (pictured above), the smooth jazz supergroup that he's co-led since 1991, may make a return, even though the quartet lost guitarist, Chuck Loeb, to cancer in 2017. "I very much know that we are going to come back," discloses James. "We haven't a complete plan yet as we haven't really committed to a fourth member because as you know, there was a very sad development with Chuck Loeb passing away. What made it even more difficult was how much Chuck had been an extremely important element in keeping the morale together in our group and raising the standards of it. Everything about what he had brought the group made him a permanent fixture, so we've had to kind of go back to the drawing board. We haven't made up our minds yet exactly so I'm now trying to focus on making the most that I can out of my trio project and tour and put my energies into that. By the time that it will have run its course, I think we will be ready to embark on another Fourplay project."

Starting off in Japan and then returning to the USA, Bob James' tour schedule is hectic right up until December. He hopes to visit the UK with his trio sometime in the New Year. "It will be 2019, but hopefully the early part," he says. "We don't have a schedule yet in place but the last couple of times I've played Ronnie Scott's and several different concert venues, so we're already talking about it."

Bob James' new album 'Espresso' is out now via the Evosound label

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 September 2018 07:22