The following interview is derived from a conversation between Bob James and JAZZIZ Editor and Publisher Michael Fagien, which originally took place via a live stream video on jazziz.com. The excerpt below has been edited for length and clarity.Michael Fagien: For those of you who know Bob James, you know what a legend he is as one of the most influential artists in contemporary jazz. For me it all started with my first Bob James LP, an album titled Touchdown. I think for a lot of people, especially that are my age, who bought Touchdown in a record store, couldn't help but to notice this album with its beautiful photo of a football on the cover and of course from the popular track on there from the hit TV series Taxi. Bob let's get right into this, as that was a seminal moment in your career. Can you tell us how that all happened?Bob James: Like so many things. When I think back these days, and I have a lot of opportunities to think back because it’s mostly about memories and mostly about nostalgia. When I am still able to communicate with people online, I hear so many different things from people around the world that remind me of how this incredible thing – recorded music – and how it goes all over the world to places that you could never anticipate. At the time of that recording Taxi, I was immersed in the New York City scene. I had finally found a niche at this record company, called CTI, a few years before and it was there where I did all kinds of arrangements and yet I was kind of yearning to break free from it and go out on my own. And I'm very grateful for a wonderful jazz producer named Bruce Lundvall, who hooked me up over Columbia records to produce my own music there.
I actually started my own label at almost the same time you started JAZZIZ. So, so we have a kind of similar history that went on during that time and I definitely still remember my lack of understanding about why some things became and some things didn't and what you had to do with your music in order to make it be memorable. And I never liked any of the theories that people had about it because I always feel like that the public is smarter than theories are, that they'll realize it when you're copying somebody else and when you're not being honest, when you're not being yourself. So that album was a chance for me to put the music from that TV series that I was working on at that time. I knew it was going to be on national television, but didn’t know whether the show was going to be successful or not. Some of those shows run for one year and then they're off. But I got very lucky because I was asked to do that music for a series that became super popular and ended up in syndication all over the world. And my little theme called “Angela” [actual title of the track on Touchdown] rode that train and have my music heard a million times more than it would've been heard otherwise.
I'm still grateful to this very day about that. But it was kind of a fluke. I wasn't doing TV music at that time. There was one of the producers of that series had my previous album well two albums before that, Bob James 4 which I had done for CTI records and he had it in his collection and he liked the mood of it and they were trying to figure out what kind of mood to do on the, on the TV show. So he was playing that music behind some of the rough footage that they were working on. And then they decided, well, why don't you call the guy who made that music and ask him if you'll contribute something new. And that's what happened. So the original request was just to create some new music similar to what I did on BJ 4.
Yeah, Touchdown was it for me. I'd never heard music like that before that album. And you brought up a couple of things that I'd like to touch on. One is Bruce Lundvall. Bruce has been so pervasive for so many people and companies that he's helped get into the jazz world. I am one of them too. I remember talking to Bruce when I started JAZZIZ magazine in a one-bedroom apartment. I recall my first conversation with Bruce from my kitchen wall phone. The phone rang, I picked it up and it was Bruce and he said he got my name and number from someone. Of course, he had no idea he was calling, and I was answering, from my kitchen. He thought he was calling some office and he told me how he at the time he was head of Elektra/Musician, which was a cool jazz imprint at Warner back then. I loved that label as Lee Ritenour and other great artists were on it. And Bruce told me how he's going to be leaving Elektra (confidentially) and rejuvenating the Blue Note brand and that he would like me to be a part of that launch and could use help with my magazine. I was honored and said, count me in. Blue Note became my first major record label advertiser and was Bruce so supportive all the way through. My favorite and most memorable thing about Bruce was our friendship that we forged over the years and that he was always there to support me.
Bruce was very much a similar person for me. In addition to him being the primary reason why I got signed to Columbia and left CTI records. He also masterminded the project that turned out to become my first Grammy award because at that time there was a great guitarist who was signed to his Blue Note label; Earl Klugh. He started trying to figure out a way that could get the two of us together to collaborate. And sometimes when artists have exclusive deals with different labels that can become very complicated legally, contextually, whatever. But Bruce was able to work it out and while he didn't produce the One On One that I did with Earl Klugh, but he was the mastermind behind it and the one that made it go smoothly.
The interesting thing about One on One and in a lot of your early releases on Tappan Zee your label through Columbia, which had nothing to do with the music and that was incredible photography and packaging of those albums. How did that come about? Whether it was Touchdown or Lucky Seven or even other artists on your label like Mark Colby with that gigantic screw on the cover. These were just phenomenal. In fact, it was an inspiration for me being in the media business. That kind of imaging and positioning and presentation was so superlative. What was that all about?
Well, I completely agree with you. We both know how much the business has changed and having that kind of artistic approach to music has to become a totally different kind of a challenge now. But I credit for the most part the genius marketing and artistic spirit of Creed Taylor for that because one of the main things that he was talking about all the time during the years that I was working with him was packaging and he wanted his records to look different from the other records in the record store and he wanted them to stand out. And Creed worked with several different artistic directors and he also loved fine art photography. And I remember Pete Turner, the fine art photographer was one of the people that Creed loved a lot. And Pete Turner's work ended up on a lot of CTI covers, but they were very simple with high gloss lamination so that the records didn't look like the cheap, dull cardboard. They were 12 inches tall and shiny and you wanted to pick them up in a record store. Like a little piece of art in the record store and if you were lucky enough that your covers looked artistic, the record store owner might stick them out there and open and you just get that much more exposure. By the time I left CTI, that was a little bit part of my identity because I had made four solo records for them, all of which had that kind of high gloss lamination and double-fold covers where you open it up and there was all kinds of liner note and information on the inside and photography. I carried that with me over to Columbia when I was producing records there and I had to call upon my friendship with Bruce to have whatever degree that he could be influential because a lot of these things end up in the finance department and the people who are concerned about budgets and who were saying; “Why do you need the double fold? It costs twice as much. You don't need this high gloss lamination. Why don't we just keep it simple?” And I fought as hard as I could and learned that I didn't love that part of the business world very much.
Let me back up even a little bit more because CTI was so influential, not only to you but to a whole jazz scene that Creed was doing back then and you worked with and sort of nurtured a lot of artists on CTI that became big stars in the jazz world.
Very, very lucky time for me. That's the thing I probably remember the most about it because I love the theater and my best friend is a director in the theater, and I spent a lot of time getting to know the way the actors function, especially in a repertory group where the all the actors come together and in one show you're the leader and another show you're just a supporting actor. And I felt like at during that time, especially during those CTI years, we had a repertory group and we were all supportive of each other. One day there might be a Hubert Laws album and I'm just called-on to just play the piano. But on the next session, it might be my record and I could have Hubert come in and be a sideman on my project. And there was a lot of back and forth and all of these artists so many of them that I got to know and work with because of the way the CTI label operated. Creed had a small network of people that he used over and over and over again, like Ron Carter and Billy Cobham at that time. And then Grover Washington exploded. In a way that the music business works. Sometimes things just jump out and you can't avoid the uniqueness of the sound of the artist. I was lucky to be asked to be the arranger on Grover's early recordings there and they helped establish my reputation in New York as an arranger and they me form my own style as an artist. They were great years.
After that period from, from CTI to tap Zee on Columbia, you then moved to Warner Bros. and I, I think if I remember was it Tommy LiPuma that helped that transition. How'd that all happen?
Tommy was involved, but Mo Austin was really the main mover there and Lenny Waronker. At that time I was being managed by Michael Tendon, who was very much my good fortune to have met him sort of through Paul Simon. And I had been asked by the producer, Phil Ramone, to do some work with Paul Simon. And during the course of that I met Paul Simon's manager, who became interested in me separately wanting to represent me as a kind of lawyer-manager to help me out. And it was during the time of my transition from CTI to Columbia. And so Michael actually carved out a deal for me at Columbia. And it was very I had a good weapon because even though the numbers of my deal seemed really, really, really good to me, but when Michael was talking to the Columbia lawyers, my numbers were so small compared to Paul Simon's numbers that if they weren't really concerned about it at all, that they'd give me a nice deal if Michael would cooperate with them to pull it down a little bit for Paul or however that works out with lawyers.
So he was very involved right from the beginning of when I was at Columbia and when I made the exit, which was tricky. And not always completely friendly; a divorce in some ways. And when the legal people start to get hard-nosed about it and trying to be as rough as they can. And there was a time when I recall that they didn't even want Michael Tendon to be in the CBS building. He was kinda like an enemy. But then later I learned that Bruce Lundvall himself had been negotiating his own deal for when he was going to leave Columbia also. And low and behold, who did Bruce call to be his lawyer? He called my friend, Michael as they had been friends with by that time. And I then really knew that I had a good lawyer representing me which led to some really, really good years at Warner brothers. And probably the most dramatic good news about that time there at Warner is when I was able to take an idea of forming a group to the bosses at Warner brothers. And I said that I have this idea for a group called Fourplay and would they be interested in sponsoring it? And they said yes. And that's how the group Fourplay started.
You and I met about 30 something years ago and I think it may have been at a festival on a golf course in Sanibel Island. And we were talking about my just beginning a friendship with Lee Ritenour at that time and when I brought up Lee, knowing that he had already played on one or two of your records, you quickly commented on how he's a really talented guitarist with great ideas. I think we both knew him leaning more from his fusion side as he did a few landmark fusion records for Epic, over at the CBS. But then Lee did an album (in the early '80s with Dave Grusin on GRP that was clearly a more acoustic direction and that sound clearly came out in some of your projects. And then of course in Fourplay, this gentle side of Lee where there's this phenomenal playing and great writing. Tell me about your personal and professional relationship with, with Lee.
[caption id="attachment_28918" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Lee Ritenour (Photo: Toshi Sakurai)[/caption]
Well, you're right that there's some kind of magic that goes on when you meet somebody and you start playing music with them and our, our field where yes, some of our arrangements and our have prepared music, but it's the spontaneous unprepared stuff that usually becomes the most special. And when you start improvising with a new person that you're meeting for the first time, you find out things about them that you would never find out otherwise. And what was happening in this studio in LA where I had gone out to record music for an album of mine that ended up being called Grand Piano Canyon. Primarily I went out there for two reasons because I was doing most of all of my work in New York, but I really wanted to work with Harvey Mason and he had made so many records for me, including Mr. Magic by Grover Washington. So many projects Harvey had played on where we had invited him to come out to New York. But this particular time it seemed to make more sense to go out to LA because I also wanted to work with Lee and I wanted him to play on one of the tunes on that project because we had started a kind of reciprocal negotiation with each other where it was a, “I know you want me to play on your album and I want to play on yours” and vice versa, let's keep all of our costs down. And "if you play a song for me or write a song for me, I'll write one for you" and we'd go back and forth and that kind of way. And in that sort of bargaining mode I wanted Lee to play on this record and, and he ended up also composing a tune called “Just Motion”, on that album.
So I had three out of the four, but I didn't know the LA scene very well and didn't know who was the one to get to play bass. So separately I called Lee and I called Harvey and I said, "Who should we have on base?" And Harvey said, well I think maybe Nathan East would be good call. Then when I called Lee he came up with same answer. So that was good enough for me that both of them thought that Nathan's good. So the first time working with Nathan for me and we ended up the studio, the four of us doing several days of sessions and I'm not sure that I was the first person to bring it up, as we have various memories of how the conversation started, but I know that I was really curious at that time about the different music that comes out of a group situation from, what comes out of the ego of one individual artist that's their music and everybody becomes a little bit subservient or cooperative, in a supportive role. There were many other groups that did this, Weather Report, Spyro Gyra. But I didn't know of many others where the group itself had an identity that the public became aware of that went beyond the individual identities of the members. Also, the history of most groups often includes that they break up. We talked about what would the odds be that if we formed an all-star group that it would stay together beyond one album, especially when people were already busy and successful on their own. And all four of us at that time had pretty strong careers individually. So we were pessimistic that it would last for a long time. But we felt the magic.
I knew that there was something going on between the four of us where we all shared a lot of the same interests. And so we started it up. And I also remember that the group that we used as a reference was the Modern Jazz Quartet as they definitely had a sound that lasted for many, many years through several different bass players and drummers. But the combination of John Lewis and Milt Jackson was, was the most unique part of their sound and their identity. We all acknowledged at that time, that we thought it was very, very unlikely that we would last long enough and stay together long enough to have a sound of our own. And now to be able to look back on it 28, 29 years later, however long it's been, is very gives me warm feeling to know that we did conquer that and we did arrive at our own sound.
The one seat of musical chairs in Fourplay has been your guitarists, but you seem to have a knack on picking some of the greatest contemporary guitars ever. It started with Lee, at the time he and I started our record label (i.e. music with record exec Mark Wexler) and he wanted to dedicate time to making A Twist of Jobim and other projects and I feel bad because it's as if Lee left Fourplay because he ran out of time. But you had no problem finding another great guitarist in Larry Carlton.
Yeah. Again, looking back on it from a memory standpoint to have the opportunity to carve out music in combination with three different guitar players who had, had such completely different styles. And for me to learn how to be supportive, the piano and the guitar in a group like that, as we very often operate in the same territory, in this sort of audio middle ground of the cords where the support of the music comes in and if you put the wrong pianos with the wrong guitars together, you clash. But when you're lucky enough to be with the great players that have the great ear and they know how to stay out of your way and you let them know that you know how to stay out of their way, we can carve out music that works.
One thing that I’ve noticed about you as the keyboardist, and these guitarists, was that there always was always a conversation, you listening to each other and not talking over each other. That was one of the magical aspects of Fourplay.
And it has to be that way in a group situation. It's a give and take. Yet we all know about unbelievably great music that came from the opposite kind of situation; with an almost dictator-type leader. And that also can lead to greatness. Miles Davis, Charles Mingus…where you become one of their minions. But I like to think that the history of the Fourplay group and what made us different was this spirit of four-way democracy that we decided was going to be our goal. And we started out very early on to say there will be no leader that, which was very challenging. Many business people told me it was going to be impossible. There has to be a first among equals. There has somebody that has to make the tough decisions and every time we'd have a tough decision to make, we would vote because we were a democracy and when the vote is two-to-two, now what? What do you do? So then we just kind of flounder and but somehow we kept toughing it out.
But I think the music has that kind of sound; and sometimes it has my sound, sometimes Harvey's sound, sometimes Nathan's sound and, and we have three different guitar sounds that are part of that history. Lee, going way back to the beginning ... established a pretty heavy influence right off the bat from our first record and was probably the reason why the Fourplay group has the kind of guitar sound that it has because he invented the Fourplay guitar sound. “Valley Run” and the songs on that very first record. That’s still our most requested song and like a stamp that's part of our identity.
My favorite Fourplay albums are the first album and then your anniversary album, Silver.
I'm very glad to hear you say that because it was, as it turned out to be an album that we can celebrate to remember Chuck Loeb who revitalized our group. We had reached the point where after Larry Carlton decided that he wanted to get back to his solo career and we were beginning to think that maybe we would never find that kind of loyal guitar spirit. But when Chuck joined, it was immediately obvious how much ambition he had, how much enthusiasm respect that he had for us, and with a kind of energy that made the rest of the three of us go to the practice room because a lot of his charts were hard. They were challenging. And the Silver album in many ways represents a combination of a lot of that and very much enthusiasm on Chuck's part to even make that record happen.
One of the things I noticed about Chuck is that he was clearly the lesser-known of the Fourplay guitarists, certainly one that was known if you were a contemporary jazz fan, but most people didn't hear of Chuck before Fourplay and therefore it looked like he had something to prove and he proved it.
[caption id="attachment_28920" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Chuck Loeb performing at Clapham Grand in 2011 (Photo: Courtesy fourplayjazz.com)[/caption]
Yes. And he knew that we could give him that opportunity and to reach a wider audience. And I think that did happen. But still, I'm still amazed at the history that he created almost always being the best-kept secret in the music business, always behind the scenes. He was always doing great things, but never was an ego artist ego because at least 50% of the time he was producing for other artists doing all kinds of other things behind the scenes.
Like your career, many people associated Chuck as a contemporary or smooth jazz guy, but that wasn't his roots. He came from very traditional jazz roots.
Yes. And that's why Harvey and I were the main pushers of that. That's not to say that Nathan didn't love him also, but in my memory of when we were trying to figure out who to get next, I believe I was the first one to bring up Chuck because I'd worked with Chuck more than they had. But what we liked about his playing is that we always had the feeling that there was the straight-ahead jazz roots at the ground level of the Fourplay sound. They weren't just part of a modern, smooth jazz world.
Before identifying Chuck to be a perfect fit as the third guitar player in Fourplay, you've discovered a lot of talent over the years. In fact, if not discovered, they appeared on your albums before they became big. From the early days with some of the great contemporary jazz artists that went on to have successful solo careers. Even more recently, around 2008 Esperanza Spalding was on your record before people really knew she was.
Well, thank you for saying that. I couldn't take very much credit there. What an amazing artist that she is. I guess part of that is when you're busy, when you're doing a lot of things and working with different people that happens. What you're describing, I guess some more than others, Kirk Whalum comes to mind as being somebody with him. My first experience with Kirk was kind of if you, if you can't beat them, join them type of thing, because he was the opening act for concerts I was playing in Houston, Texas, and I went out to hear his band and they were killing it so much. They had this audience wiped out before I even got to the stage. So I thought, well, I, this is not going to be my night because I can try to come up with something, but it's not going to be on the level of what Kirk was giving them. So then I got this idea, Hey, why don't I have him join my band and I'll have the best of both worlds. And I was working on an album project at that time, so I called him immediately and invited him to come out to New York and, and play on my album 12.
[caption id="attachment_28921" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Kirk Whalum (Photo: Courtesy the artist)[/caption]
I think the track that really showcased Kirk was "Ruby, Ruby, Ruby"?
Which was a song Kirk wrote for his wife. And I got to learn what a great composer he is. And then right after that we went on a tour together, became good friends, and led to a whole bunch of things, including me signing him to my label and producing him. And we're still going strong in that world. Those are the fun stories to be able to look back on where you saw the talent. While you can't promise anything, as you well know, functioning as a label or as producers or an advisers, we can say, boy, you are super talented. You're going to have a great future ahead of you, but we can't predict what that's going to be as there are too many variables.
As far as contemporary saxophonists go, one could argue about technique, and people will say who they like best. What I love about Kirk, is that I don't think anyone has the sound that Kirk has on sax.
I completely agree with you. And he brought us back to that era, when I grew up, where the actual sound, even from those playing the same instruments, was there. I was a huge fan of Stan Getz and Paul Desmond. Those sounds were so unique at that time and I didn't hear that again until I heard Kirk. Not like he was trying to sound like Getz or anything like that. He had his own voice, but it was this warmth and kind of thickness and ability to go straight to your heart.
They've said--the they people-- that you are the godfather, the progenitor of smooth jazz. How does that sit with you?
Fine! I like smooth. I like rough. Yeah. I like them both. And if the criticism is that we get too smooth, okay. Criticism is inevitable and our job is to make music and hope that some people like it. But not all people are going to like it. And the phenomenon of what happened with smooth jazz is, is debatable because of the function of it. There was a time in which jazz became a buzzword for comfort or for background. And when the term started to get used, smooth jazz, it wasn't the musicians that were making that, putting those two things together. It was a business thing. It was advertisers, it was marketing. And so what happened, and I know it happened with me in that format, that only music of mine that got played in that format was the smoothest part of my music. And one of which was the Taxi theme that we were just talking about. And you might get frustrated and say to those stations, Why don't you play my rough music?" But it didn't fit their format. It didn't fit what they were trying to accomplish. And it may seem pompous or presumptuous to use classical music as an example, but you might think of Mozart as a smooth classical artist because his music is so smooth to people's ears.
So you might hear that if you were a marketing person and wanted to use classical music in a way to make people feel nice and comfortable in the background. You probably wouldn't want to put, put Bartok or Stravinsky on there or less Mozart on there. But it's too late for critics to make any kind of stance and blame Mozart for the fact that he was too smooth. It's a kind of a ridiculous criticism to make. I don't mind being smooth, Michael, it's okay, it's just music, it's my music and we sometimes we like to say--those of us who are trying to make this music-- you can call it whatever you want to call it, as long as you play it. And then once you've played it, once we play our music for you, then we've done our best and you're either going to like it or you're not going to like it. And that's life.
I saw you at the Blue Note in New York a few years back and you played the most smoking, rough jazz set that I could ever imagine from Bob James. And when I came up to you after the show, I said, Bob, that was amazing. I mean, I didn't even know you played like that and your response, was, and I'll paraphrase, "Oh, I can play that. it's just most of the time I don't."
Well it's really fun to be unpredictable too. If I might get as much pleasure out of going in front of a rough, straight-ahead jazz audience and play nothing but smooth music and, and provoke them and do the opposite in, in front of us, new jazz audience and play crazy rough stuff too, because that's part of my job. And yet it is also my responsibility to give all listeners and experience and then at that point, it becomes their world. It's out of my hands and into theirs. And if I've done my job good enough, I have a good chance of making people like it.
Your music has been copied a lot. Not only from others in contemporary jazz or smooth jazz, trying to get that Bob James sound but some say you're the godfather of hip-hop and that you're being called that because your history with hip hop is pretty substantial.
Well, it's another example of the unknowns. How in the world do things like this happen in the music business that you could never predict? Certainly in the 1970s at CTI, the last thing that I would have ever thought was that one of my records would end up being used in this rap hip hop field, which seemed to be so many universes apart from each other. The composition that has been sampled the most in the hip-hop world is a song that I wrote called "Nautilus". I was recording in 1974 for CTI records and when Creed Taylor asked me to come up with new material I was primarily thinking of myself as an arranger and I wasn't really heading out to do a solo artist career. Most of my work was in the studio arranging for other artists, but I did have a little bit background in both classical music and jazz, so I proposed to do an arrangement of "Night on Bald Mountain" for this project. And we used a big orchestra and strings and brass and most importantly I got the right drummer who was an up and coming guy at that time named Steve Gadd and featured drums throughout this recording.
Many years later, Steve thank to me because that session and that particular recording and his playing on it led to many, many good things for him and his career. So I like having that a little bit of a part of knowing how great he was back in those days. But there was one other song called "Feel Like Making Love" which was a result of me being in the studio as a sideman on Roberta Flack's recording session and listening to this new song that had been brought in by Gene McDaniels. And it was great. Every one of us in the studio knew how great it was and how great Roberta sounded singing it. So I had this super-duper perfect timing of being able to go in the studio. Coincidentally within a couple of weeks after that session was the same rhythm section, Gary King on base. Richie Resnikov on guitar and Muhammad playing drums. My recording sounded a lot like Roberta's because it was the same band and we were doing song in the same key, the same tempo minus the vocal. So I got a lot of airplay back and forth with the radio stations because Roberta's record became a big hit and I was lucky to be part of it. And it changed my life because I was my instrumental cover that got a lot of attention and led to many good things. But at the very same time, buried deep into that project was a song called "Nautilus". It was a throwaway, we concentrated all of our energy on these other songs and just had to have something else to fill out the album. So if you look at the LP version of my record, One for CTI, you will find that "Nautilus" is the last cut on side B, which was buried so far because of the likelihood that this was going to get any airplay and that thought that nobody's going to pay any attention to it, which they didn't at that time. That was the most interesting thing about it. And for me at that time was that Creed came up with a fun title for it because I use some kind of a synthesizer sound that sounded like a submarine. And so he called it "Nautilus".
Now 20 years go by and I start to hear that this recording is getting all kinds of attention and the rap hip-hop field and the use of recorded music in chunks, and what became known as samples, was becoming a much more of a phenomenon than I ever thought it would be. I thought it was kind of fluky when I first heard about it. I couldn't believe it. You mean they're coming in, they're stealing my music or they're just taking it. And very often that was the case. A lot of the early recordings, eventually, as you and I both know, it became a legitimate industry also of which I have a wonderful part of it. Having been on the ground floor for some magical reason, the early hip hop producers chose a few of my cuts to be chunks, to be sampled. And I think Idris Muhammad who created the magic groove on Nautilus for the reason why it's a good song to dance to in chunks.
Let's talk about four hands.
Lovely memory. And that one's kind of fluke too because it happened during the history of me with Keiko goes back to that album, Dancing on the Water that I was working on at that time, which I had started off as a solo project, but I wasn't having any fun playing solo piano was way too lonely for me and I needed some companions. I need some partners to play. And I missed not having any drums and bass or anything else. So for whatever reason, I thought that I would invite a couple of guests, one of whom was Chuck Loeb, who played duet on that title song "Dancing on the Water". But I had been a fan of Keiko Matsui and I only met her once, she was playing at the Hollywood Bowl and I just very briefly met her backstage, but I had also been a fan of piano duet, forehand, piano, classical music. I loved doing it. And as a hobby. And I thought about writing a, some forehand, original piano music maybe for that project, and maybe invite a couple of my favorite pianists.
So the choices that I made were Joe Sample and Keiko. And I didn't really know either one of them very well at that time, but in order to try to intrigue Keiko to be willing to accept the invitation I sent over this piece that I had been working on, it ended up being called "Altera and Vega", which but she received this package and opened it up and fortunately she had a positive feeling about it and agreed to join in with me for the recording. And that led to many things. We did several tours together. And my memory of some of those, a couple of them in particular where we play concert halls where there was no sound system and no speakers, nothing. The one piano on the stage, we walk out, no amplification and just the sound of the grand piano is all that you heard during the course of that night. That was just so much fun for me. She wrote several pieces for me on her projects. We've traded back and forth and we still talk about maybe doing something I hope in the future to
Let's talk about pop music for a minute. You produced some really great pop records. One of my favorites is one that I think you did with Phil Ramone for Kenny Loggins' Celebrate Me Home.
Yeah, I agree. That was a great time. Kenny was looking to break a break away from his collaboration with Jim Messina and do his first solo project and signed with Columbia Records. It was just, again, really good timing for me because I had just gotten the job through Bruce Lundvall with a jazz A&R role at Columbia. Kenny was also looking to pull away from the just folk-rock kind of sound that his previous records had had and he wanted to introduce jazz elements and that's why he brought me in to be that voice that would just change the sound. The project was very much him and I had a minor role in it. I was just supposed to kind of be there help, help him introduce occasionally some jazz elements but it did give that record of unique sound for him that contributed to him launching his own solo career. And along the way, the title song became such a standard and Kenny was good enough to allow me to collaborate with him a little bit on that song and make a contribution to it as a composer too. So having, having a co-composer credit on that song, every Christmas time it gets played so much. It was beautiful. Really great memory.
You're very humble because when I hear the first two solo Kenny Loggins albums, Celebrate Me Home and Nightwatch, for Bob James fans, you can imagine the Bob James sound with Kenny Loggins singing. It's a beautiful combination.
Thank you. It was beautiful fun for me and I learned a lot from him. The way he approached music was so different from the jazz musicians that I was working with. I had to get into a completely different mindset to do the job for him. Kenny was so good and so talented and there was so much genius coming out of him that just being in the creative environment with him in the studio and writing with him was a very significant thing for me.
Artists like Kenny Loggins, when they reach that immense popularity with songs like "Footloose", I believe what happens is that most people don't realize that there's a lot more history and talent there that got them to "Footloose".
Of course. And Kenny is one of those artists that he makes his music seem simple and very direct, even though it's not. There's a lot of complexity behind his music, a lot of subtlety that those of us who try to be supportive to him and tried to help him reach his vision, we realize how much, how deep he's trying to go and what he's aiming for. And it doesn't just happen automatically, there's a lot of preparation.
You've done pop, jazz, classical... any artists that you, that you haven't collaborated with yet, projects that you want to do?
It's the biggest question on my mind all the time. Michael. I'm home by myself. I live alone now, so I have way too much time to think about that stuff. I'm thinking about all the time and I still have so many ideas about what I want to do and I'm very fortunate that I have people that still want to work with me and I think it's going to have to be choice of just starting and kind of go one at a time, make a commitment. Back over the last, let's say six or seven years, I've gone back and forth trying to do my bucket list. And one of which was that I wanted to have the opportunity to work with larger ensembles, symphony orchestra and finally took on the challenge of doing a full-scale long-form classical piece, which was a piano concerto. Very difficult for me and challenging. I spent a couple of years working on it, composing it and ended up doing three performances with mixed feelings. Some of it was very exciting, some of very stimulating while some of it also very frustrating because I think that I never got to the place where I wanted it to go. So on my continued bucket list is the question of whether I want to keep pursuing that and do another large scale work.
Maybe a ballet or maybe a symphony. I don't know yet but it's in the back of my mind and I'm nervous about whether I have enough energy and made to do that. I have some young people that I admire a lot, talent-wise that I would like to be a mentor in the same way that I was for Kirk. We both know that these kinds of talents are coming up all the time. I had a wonderful experience in Ukraine toward the end of last year with a young saxophonist who had sent me a tape. It's a variation on the same theme that happened for me with Kirk. A guy named Andrey Chmut who is a brilliantly talented young kid in his 20s. And just out of the blue, he sent me a tape of one of his songs that he imagined me playing a solo on it. And I liked it so much that I, without even making a deal with him or any talk about payment or anything else, I told him how much I liked it and just put my piano part on it. One thing led to another, his record came out and it's really great. There's a single from it called "Moving Forward" and he invited me to come to Kiev, to Ukraine, and I played a concert with him with this crazy rhythm section--two guys from Nigeria, a bass player and a drummer. We had strings and the whole production thing and he's full of ideas, sends me a new piece almost every day and wants to do a project together. So that's on my bucket list...I've got too much going on to even keep up with, not even thinking in the furthest part of my mind about any kind of retirement.