Manic expressives like Bob James never really take hiatuses, they simply blend into other musicians’ visions while gearing up for new releases under their own name. The Grammy-winning keyboardist, composer and contemporary jazz innovator’s Espresso — credited to the Bob James Trio — marks a stylistically freewheeling return to recording his own material after 12 years focused on his popular ensemble Fourplay and projects with the likes of Nathan East, David Sanborn and Keiko Matsui.
While James is best known as a progenitor of smooth jazz, Espresso extends his more trad-jazz improvisational side as a trio leader, which extends from his Quincy Jones-helmed 1963 debut Bold Conceptions to 2004’s Take It From the Top. On Espresso, James switches among piano, Rhodes and synthesizer, but maintains an intimate acoustic feel. He’s joined by longtime cohort Billy Kilson on drums and bassist Michael Palazzolo, who first played with James during a weeklong engagement in 2017 at the Blue Note in New York City. Whether James is in the mood for waltz-like romance (“Promenade,” “Il Boccalone”), wild boppish swing (a polyrhythmic romp through “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) or deep-pocket funk (“Submarine,” “Topside”), Kilson remains the perfect rhythmic anchor.
Though it’s a hook driven pop-leaning classic, the trio collectively and individually creates their most inventive improvisations on a densely percussive romp through “Mister Magic.” Following James’ dynamic solo, Palazzolo slows the groove with a mix of long, haunting notes and quick plucks on the upright, and Kilson kicks off a crashing drum-and-cymbal solo rife with percussive textures. Another highlight is the adventurous “Mojito Ride,” which balances dramatic orchestral grandeur and a lush piano melody with grooves that bounce along in fits and starts. Espresso finds James and his rhythm section running the gamut from smooth to straightahead jazz and from light funk to free-form improvisation and swing, all driven by the trio’s highly intuitive musical chemistry.— Jonathan Widran