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By Jonathan Widran
On Jazz Hands, Bob James balances the smooth with the rough, the classic with the contemporary.
Out of sheer appreciation for the loyal fans who flock to see him perform, Bob James admits that he feels obligated to play his ubiquitous “greatest hits” — “Angela (Theme from Taxi),” “Westchester Lady” and sometimes “Maputo.” While staples of the smooth jazz format for decades, they’re hardly the emotional core of any show. Rather, the veteran composer-keyboardist sees them as a lighthearted dessert after a heartier, much more eclectic menu of tunes reflective of a six-decade career that began with an exploration of his fascination for free, avant-garde jazz (his Quincy Jones-produced 1963 debut Bold Conceptions) and evolved to include straightahead, acoustic and electric jazz, classical and pop.
Closing in on his 84th birthday on Christmas Day, James seems to have a secret longing for “rough jazz” stations that play the edgier material and what he calls the “different stimulations” he includes on his albums — and in his concerts — to balance the smooth. “When your days dwindle down, you try to go for as much quality as you can in your life,” he says from his home in Michigan.
“I’m told that a lot of older people want to relax and take it easy at this point. Likewise, an old friend told me that when I perform, I should play the smoother, easier, more chill tunes. But that goes against everything I started out to accomplish in choosing jazz as my creative vehicle. For me, it was always about adventure, the sense of the unknown inherent in improvisation, that got me excited. I can practice my chops but can’t practice those incredible solos that just come when I’m playing with different musicians who help me stretch and challenge myself even now. Thankfully, I still have my health, and playing with my current trio of Michael Palazzolo [bass] and James Adkins [drums] is the highlight of my life. I’m never going to phone it in and stay in comfort.”
James can’t recall whether it was in the ’70s (when he relaunched his solo recording career with CTI Records after a decade) or ’80s (when hit albums like Double Vision with David Sanborn became the gateway to smooth jazz) when his late wife Judy gave him a piece of thoughtful advice. He had become concerned about the wild eclecticism that had grown out of his prolific studio work. He had fun doing rock one day, jazz the next, a polka or classical arrangement the next, but he felt guilty, as if he should focus instead on being a pianist with one specific way of expressing himself. Judy was the first person in his life to speak of the multifaceted résumé as “not a bad thing, but simply me sharing all my different interests. She made me realize I needn’t apologize for being all over the map.”
Perhaps we can thank Judy’s long-ago insight for the freewheeling stylistic diversity of Jazz Hands, James’ 36th solo album and third for the high-end audio label evosound. Recording most of the album during the pandemic prevented it from being the full-on live-in-the-studio trio showcase James would have preferred. However, he stirs up quite a bit of that rough jazz energy with Palazzolo and Adkins on the exotic and bustling, wildly improvisational opening jam “Mambalicious” and the feisty, densely percussive and fast grooving “Beerbohm,” fashioned as an homage to his early mentor and producer Jones. Palazzolo also penned “The Alchemist,” which balances its laid-back meditational vibe with a swirl of bass improv and a constant electronic backbeat.
One of the most fascinating elements of James’ career — running almost exactly parallel with his 25 years of recording and touring with contemporary jazz supergroup Fourplay — is his notoriety as a source composer for hits crafted by rap and hip-hop superstars from LL Cool J and Run-D.M.C. to Missy Elliott, Common and will.i.am. One podcaster who interviewed James called him “the sonic architect of rap’s golden era.” While his ’70s instrumental classics “Nautilus” and “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” are the most sampled, “Westchester Lady” was used by the groundbreaking duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince on the track “Here We Go Again” from their platinum 1988 album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.
Even as it made James’ music cool to a younger generation of fans in the emerging genre, the track was sampled without permission — ultimately leading to legal hassles and a nice settlement. The keyboardist’s desire to officially collaborate with DJ Jazzy Jeff on Jazz Hands was a matter of several decades passing, letting bygones be bygones and being invited a few years ago to be interviewed on a podcast by the legendary turntablist. The two bonded and decided to see what they could come up with in real time.
True to its title, “That Bop” is a dynamic piece of hard-thumping, disco/jazz fusion, with James’ dazzling retro-keyboards and piano improvisations darting and weaving over the DJ’s crafty, infectious beats. James promises more collaborations in the future — hopefully with the two working in the same studio rather than by file sharing. On his own, James applied hip-hop inspiration to “Mophead,” which blends his trademark cool improvisational keyboard flow with drum loops.
James also vibes on Jazz Hands with — and in fact, owes the title track to — pop/R&B singer CeeLo Green, who used “Angela” as the foundation of his 2015 tune “Sign of the Times,” a piece the keyboardist loved. For the tune that developed into the sexy, Quiet Storm-flavored vocal “Jazz Hands,” James improvised some parts on the keys under the supervision of Green’s producer Cory Mo. “CeeLo didn’t say much, so I didn’t know if he liked it,” James recalls, “but by the time I returned to the studio the next morning, he had created the grooves and laid down all the vocals and background vocals. I couldn’t resist that double entendre title and asked his permission to use it for the album.”
While some listeners may focus on the heavily funky urban jazz romp “The Secret Drawer” as a spotlight for rising Ukrainian sax star Andrey Chmut, to James the tune is also special because it was co-written with Rachel Kwag, a South Korean composer, arranger and music school professor who has become an important creative consultant during the past few years. He previously worked with her on his 2020 collaboration with trumpeter Till Brönner, On Vacation.
“Rachel doesn’t make any attempt to tell me how to compose or play,” James says. “But she is an insightful observer who has helped me, both in the studio and on the road, achieve better focus and command over my music. At this stage in my career, I would not have thought I needed or wanted an objective voice providing that, but she’s played a significant role in my life and will hopefully continue playing a part in my artistry moving forward.”
Featured photo by Judy Franz.