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If you have a few hours to spare, check out Bob James' discography—a tome featuring over 300 recordings with artists such as Ron Carter, George Benson, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Karen Carpenter, and musicians from every niche in between. With upwards of 40 of his own solo albums, James is clearly one of the most-recorded artists in history. A bevy of Grammys and Grammy nominations—not to mention dozens of awards from various jazz magazines—make it clear that James it is not just a prolific artist, he is a brilliant artist.
And he's certainly not content to rest on his laurels. From exotic international collaborations to touring and recording with his own trio and with the super-group Fourplay—featuring jazz greats Larry Carlton, Nathan East, and Harvey Mason—to hosting a musical cruise to founding a wine club to producing stunning works of visual digital art, James is a true dynamo. His popularity's not flagging, either. Fourplay's latest album Journey has been nominated for a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Jazz Album." James spoke with Musician's Friend from his home in Traverse City, Michigan.
Musician's Friend: Preparing for this interview I was astounded at the number of records I have that you're on—Hubert Laws at Carnegie Hall, Stanley Turrentine, Johnny Hammond, the list goes on and on. I was just blown away by your ubiquitousness.
Bob James: [laughs] That was a great period of time for me historically during the CTI years. [CTI founder] Creed Taylor's whole philosophy was to just record as much as he could. And I was one of his stable people both as a staff arranger and as the keyboard player on a lot of projects as well. It was nearly a full-time job. It was really great. I had a chance to work with a lot of musicians I had only known by reputation before that. I have very fond memories of that time period.
MF: I'm very impressed with your ability to adopt different moods in your playing. Each mood feels totally authentic. I came away from listening to all those records with a new respect for you. So I'm really happy to be able to be talking with you.
BJ: Thank you. I'm really happy that you came away from that session in a positive mood. It would have been a little bit of a strained interview otherwise. [general laughter]
MF: After four decades of arranging, writing, and performing, you've seen a lot of musical trends come and go. A lot of people these days lament the lack of emphasis on good musicianship, especially in pop music. What's your take on that notion?
BJ: It's funny. I'm going through a process now of coming to grips with a lot of the aspects of the way music has changed. I do tend to believe that you can't go back. We may think of some things as just being a novelty or a trend but once they exist it's hard to imagine that they will cease to exist. I'm referring now specifically to the technological revolution and the way people make music or make a new brand of music not necessarily by even playing instruments. They put combinations of sound together and do sampling and manipulation of various gadgetry so that the musicianship becomes something very different from what we used to think about in terms of the physical playing of an instrument. It's more a combination of producing and choices, all of which require great skills to make the music memorable and to end up with good results. But it is a very different world we live in now. And we all just have to adjust to that.
MF: You came up at the same time rock and roll came up. What kind of influence did pop music have—the rock stuff and rockabilly stuff—in your early musical thinking?
BJ: In the early seventies, when I was working with Creed Taylor, there was an interest in bringing some rock elements into jazz to help expand the jazz audience. So at the same time a lot of us who were doing studio work were called upon to play various styles in addition to our main passion, and mine certainly was jazz. When responding to the challenges of those sessions, different aspects of that music crept into ours. And I think the same thing was happening in reverse. A lot of these pop people—like Steely Dan or Paul Simon, etc.—started using jazz musicians in order to bring a jazz element into their music, too. So there was definitely a cross-hybridization. The end result is that even today much of contemporary jazz contains rock elements.
MF: What about in the early days, back in the late '50s? Were you a big fan of any of those rock and roll guys? Were you listening to that stuff, or were you totally focused on jazz?
BJ: I would say more the latter. I definitely was mostly concentrating on jazz and was not really listening to much rock music at all. I was probably more focused at that time of my life than before or since. Because real life sets in and you respond to things that are going on around you. But when I was in high school and college I was really exploring jazz for the first time and was fascinated by it categorically.
MF: Were you a snoot?
BJ: I probably was in a way, sure. [chuckles] I really believe that even if you don't end up loving it we can always learn from experiencing the best of music in any genre. And every time I've investigated another genre of music seriously—whether it's world music, or hillbilly music, or whatever—there's always a good reason why people rise to the top. It's never accidental. So I love to try to figure out what makes certain people the best in whatever the genre happens to be.
MF: Tell us about your days with Quincy Jones. What was he like to work with?
BJ: He was very pivotal for me professionally. I met him while I was still in college when he judged a jazz festival in which I competed. We struck up a friendship that has remained even to this day. And I've always considered that to be a very fortunate break—what people refer to as their "break" in show business. Quincy was at least one of those for me. He was always influential with people he was around. So if he liked you and said good things about you, it was like having a calling card or an entree to things you wouldn't have access to otherwise. He definitely represented that to me.
MF: So you met him and how did things change?
BJ: In addition to us winning this competition, which was more or less just a trophy, he was an A&R guy with Mercury Records and was able to sign me to a deal to make my first album, Bold Conceptions. That record came about as a result of Quincy signing and encouraging me. Then I moved to New York and Quincy introduced me to a music copying service. So I found out about that whole part of the music business early on. This was the place where Quincy went to do all of his preparation of his charts whenever he was doing a recording session. And practically every hit arranger in New York City was coming in and out of that space at that time. So I had a chance to meet a lot of people, learn the whole process of arranging. That ended up getting me a lot of jobs and getting me on the inside of the New York scene.
So Quincy was very important for getting me into that. He also recommended me to Sarah Vaughan. And that's pretty much how I got the job as her musical director. I had that job for four or five years. When I finally went back to studio work in the late 1960s, I got a call to do a recording session for Creed Taylor, who I had never met. The session was an album of Quincy's that he'd asked me to play on and write a couple of arrangements for. That album turned out to be Walking in Space. It was my introduction to Creed Taylor, who liked my work on that project and began to hire me for other things. So at these key times, once every ten years or so, Quincy was very important in getting me established.
MF: Your fairy godmother showed up and hooked you up!
BJ: Yeah, really! No question about it.
MF: You started out writing for theater productions in college. Do you think that made a lasting impression on your composition style?
BJ: Definitely. I love the theater. I still have extremely fond memories of that time in my life. In some ways I still wish I could have gone further into the theater and done more with it. But life takes on its own pattern and jazz was always my main love. So I ended up going there. But at least in an indirect way it definitely influences me a lot.
MF: In terms of trying to make your music accessible or what?
BJ: I think theatrically in the big sense of drama, of pacing, of developing themes—a lot of the same general things that one thinks about in music. But if you get too narrow in your focus sometimes the mechanics of making music can take over. And I find in some of the jazz that I listen to there's not much of a focus on the big picture of dynamics and pace and form and all those things that are part of other arts.
MF: Are there any regular sources of ideas and inspiration that you use when you're creating solos?
BJ: I still listen a lot. And I certainly admire people like Pat Metheny, who I consider to be probably the great soloist of our contemporary genre. And of course there are many others. When I was performing my own style and doing the most listening earlier in my career I was listening to Bill Evens and Oscar Peterson and Count Basie and probably a half a dozen of those pianists from that era that had a big impact on me forming my style. Part of my style—which some people think of as almost a minimalist kind of style—may have come about as a result of listening to too much Oscar Peterson and realizing that I could never be able to do that technically. So I had to find another way to communicate.
MF: But you say what you have to say with fewer notes. When you're playing are you thinking consciously about the chord structure and how you're playing against it. Or at this point is it all pretty much unconscious and you just go with the flow?
BJ: I love what you said at the beginning about trying to say as much as possible with as few notes as possible. That has always been a fascination for me. And maybe it came about as a result of doing a lot of studio playing on other people's projects where you may not necessarily have a hundred chances to play a solo. You have to try to make your best possible solo all the time. So there was a lot of internal editing in my head. Because I was also aware of the fact that that solo might very well become permanent. When you're playing live you let a lot of things go, mistakes, and you try for a lot of things that might not come off. It's easier to let them go because you feel like nobody's ever really going to end up analyzing those moments.
MF: Back in those early sessions, especially back in the fifties, they only got like eight bars or twelve bars for a solo.
BJ: Sure, yeah. And a lot of us had very tight windows when we were playing pop sessions, too. That was always the case. You may have a very, very brief moment, but it wasn't like you'd ever be doing a ten or fifteen-minute solo a la John Coltrane. I loved both. I loved the economy of trying to say your whole message in a very short period of time because that was more like a compositional approach to soloing. But I also loved the challenge of trying to see if I could make something like that happen over a much longer solo. But I do tend to think like a composer when I'm playing the piano, always. Maybe not consciously, but there's always something ticking in there that's wanting (as you said) to say a lot with a few notes and not have a lot of garbage notes in there that don't mean anything.
MF: In any combo, the rhythm section is laying down a canvas on which you paint your solo, so to speak. In Fourplay, you're all such great musicians the songs probably aren't played the same every night so I'd think there would be a lot of inspiration from your fellow musicians.
BJ: There's no question about that. All the members of Fourplay had that studio period of time in our careers where we were adapting to a different artist or producer every time we would go into the studio. Just that experience alone tends to make you think in terms of economy and having your thoughts organized and not random but meaningful. That's why I love playing with these guys so much. We can be onstage and something completely new will happen. Of course, we try to make that happen every night. But when something really unexpected comes up in the middle of the tune I can feel an instant composer-producer reaction on the part of all three of the other guys, "Oh, this moment happened, how do we take advantage of that? How do we build on it? How do we respond to it?" And then a dialog starts to take place. Those kinds of moments are the most exciting thing and what makes me love to continue to go out on tour. And to continue to make new music.
MF: That must be great to be surrounded by that much musical intelligence. [laughs]
BJ: Very, very fortunate. And I hope to never take that for granted or be complacent about it. Because when we're out on tour I appreciate it every single night. It's a great feeling that we all have. And we talk about it after the show if we have a good one where all the elements come together—responsive audience, sound system, monitor speakers and . . . It doesn't always work out that way. There are nights when it's just work and you're struggling to get through it. But when everything comes together like that, it's a major highlight. We all look at each other when it's over and just have to keep repeating how lucky we are.
MF: There really are tons of factors in live performance that can affect what you feel is happening when you're onstage.
BJ: Absolutely. We just completed a tour where one of the main elements that we ended up talking about all the time was our support staff-crew. Ken Freeman was our house engineer and also worked on my keyboards. He has worked with me for years and years. He engineered a lot of my albums. Just the luxury of that was great. We don't actually hear the sound the audience hears. So you have to trust that the house engineer is going to be giving the best possible music to the audience through his mix. And Ken always does.
Our tour manager is Sonny Abelardo. He's a multi, multi, multi-purpose guy. He's been in business for a long time. And he does our lights. He could do sound if he had to. He could do just about anything. He has a wonderful, positive spirit and is sort of the conductor of the behind-the-scenes part of what we do.
Then we had Rick Wheeler who's a very close friend of Larry Carlton's who lives close to Larry. Rick basically handled Larry's guitars. But he's such an all-purpose guy, great musician in his own right. Again a wonderful attitude and he was always willing to step in with whatever was required. If something went wrong onstage he'd be running over there within one second to help and fix it.
Nathaniel Dolan was basically doing physical stuff. He was the driver of our truck. But once again because of a great attitude he would pitch in and do whatever was required during the show.
Another really critical factor was Chris Umezawa. It was my first time working with him. He's a pianist and every night my monitor system sounded like a record. And when it sounds that good it definitely has a major impact on the way the music ends up sounding. Because you can play dynamics and respond to things because you're hearing the other guys in the right perspective.
These guys all had the most wonderful attitude. They were all positive, into the flow of it. And it really felt like Nineplay instead of Fourplay. It was definitely a team effort. And we could feel a very significant difference in how we could perform. Because we were comfortable and relaxed and we knew the technical aspect of the performance was going to be together.
MF: Do you guys carry your own P.A. system?
BJ: No, we don't. We carry drums. We carry some guitar amps. On this tour I had the luxury of my own piano. I have a special Yamaha MIDI grand. It functions as a conventional acoustic piano. But it also has a solid MIDI interface. So I can have all my electronics and they're the same every night. So when I set up my custom patches and everything, they all stay the same.
MF: While we're talking about gear, what are your electronics?
BJ: I have a KARMA, the keyboard version, sitting on top of the piano. So I can play both keyboards. And on this tour I used a Korg TR-Rack interfaced to the Yamaha Midi Grand. My synths tend to be very basic on the road because it's too much for me to try to function as a utility-type keyboard player changing sounds and pushing buttons all the time. I really need to focus on playing the piano. I have string pads and occasionally a brass sound. Just a few little simple things like that. I can't really do both. If I were going out with a pop show as a background accompanist keyboard player I would. Some of those shows have two or three or more keyboard players who have a very basic function and that's all they do. And the tunes are going to be the same every night. So you can get all your patches set up and have them all conveniently programmed and everything. That's a fun job, a keyboard specialist. But in Fourplay I want to function as a lead soloist piano player. As soon as I start fiddling around with too many buttons I lose the focus of the piano playing. I'm unhappy and I don't think the music sounds good, either.
MF: So having 500 sounds and a gazillion programming functions is not so important.
BJ: It's kind of embarrassing to carry around a couple of those very sophisticated synthesizers that I carry that could do so many things when I end up just using a little string pad and that's about it. And sometimes I wish I could go out and do the hippest orchestral synth magic that I could come up with. Because that's very exciting in and of itself.
Join us for part II, when Bob James talks about his Chinese connection, recording the classics with MIDI and synths, and the early days at Berklee College of Music.
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