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Last week, grammy-winning, ground-breaking jazz keyboardist-composer Bob James talked about his days as a studio wizard for just about everybody plus his modern-day touring and recording with supergroup Fourplay as well as his own trio. This week James discusses his time at Berklee, his classical records, and his work with traditional Chinese musicians.
MF: You spent only one semester at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1958 before you went back to the University of Michigan. What was your experience at Berklee like? A lot of later graduates might be interested to hear what it was like in the late '50s.
BJ: Berklee's a great school. In the late '50s it was good but I guess it was what you'd refer to as a trade school. It had a very narrow focus. When I got seduced into going there they had advertised a tie-in they had with the New England Conservatory of Music so that you could take more legit courses too. But for the most part it was very jazz focused and very narrowly focused even on that. In that era most of the education was built around big band arrangements and very conventional study of chord symbols and all that kind of stuff. I didn't realize it until I got there, but I really missed the all-around education that I had the potential of getting at Michigan—a large university with a theater department and every conceivable interest to pursue. And Berklee didn't really have that for me.
I was young and naïve enough that when I was a freshman I was disappointed that Michigan didn't have much of anything in the way of jazz instruction. I was reading Downbeat magazine and saw the literature on Berklee and begged my parents to let me transfer. Which, very reluctantly, they did. Much to their relief, after I was at Berklee for about three months I ended up asking them if I could go back. [laughs] I don't think it really has that much to do with Berklee. I just realized how really lucky I was to be going to Michigan and to be in a great music school.
I ended up getting my jazz education behind the scenes. The way I was looking at it at that time, it was more important to be on the scene, to go into Detroit and play with some straight-ahead heavy-duty jazz players and learn my craft sitting in and playing at jam sessions and all that stuff. The education part of it was more the traditional European-style thing. That ended up working for me. I learned a lot about a wide variety of arranging. I majored in composition. I had a chance to study in a much more traditional way.
MF: Then much later in the '80s you did some classical records. What brought that on? That must have been a heck of a lot of work.
BJ: Too much. [laughs] Funny you should mention that. That's the reason I haven't gone back to it. [laughs] I loved it, but it's another lifetime. Because my expectations are pretty high based upon the greats in that world. I couldn't come very close to that just doing that as a part-time thing. And at the beginning I never really had any intention of going public with it.
When I was at Columbia Records, Bruce Lundvall was the president of Columbia before he went on to his more-current big success at Blue Note, etc. I had prepared a short cassette tape of some Christmas tunes that I had been working on just intending to give them away as a Christmas present to some close friends. I had been discovering the music of Rameau, the French baroque composer, who I loved. And somehow Rameau's music sounded very much like Christmas music to me at that time. So I did some synthesized versions of Rameau in my own style, just having fun with it. It was just a hobby kind of a thing, and Bruce Lundvall was one of the people that I gave it to. He thought it should be heard by the Masterworks Division, which was the classical division of Columbia at that time. He gave a copy of it to Christine Reed who was at Columbia Masterworks. She also loved it and convinced me that I should expand it into a full album project. And that turned out to be the Rameau album. There was just enough success with it that they encouraged me to do more. And I ended up doing a similar approach to the music of Scarlatti and finally and album of Bach concertos.
MF: Those Bach concertos must have been tough.
BJ: It was the toughest project for a variety of reasons. I brought in two European classical pianists, Turkish twin sisters Guher and Suher Pekinel, who were fantastic classical pianists who already had a big reputation. My concept was for them to play the solo Bach parts conventionally and I would be the orchestra accompanying them. Only instead of a conventional orchestra, it was going to be a synthesized orchestra. In that era there were only a few people who were making MIDI modifications to grand pianos. So we were able to get two Steinway pianos with MIDI contacts underneath the keybed so that we could record MIDI information while they were playing. This was before Yamaha's Disklavier became available. So we recorded their MIDI parts at the same time they were playing the parts conventionally. And I used all those MIDI parts to synchronize the synthesizer orchestral performance. In the case of Bach it was so contrapuntal and the music was so repetitive, it lent itself very well to the idea that the soloists were interpreting their parts in exactly the same way the orchestra was. Because the MIDI data was in synch with the string pads and whatever.
MF: That's wild.
BJ: It was definitely an exciting project. But behind the scenes the bad news was that we only had a very limited amount of time to record the twins doing their part. They were not quite as famous as the Labeque sisters but were similarly talented and played the classical repertoire. So I only had a few days in New York to record them when they were available. And all the MIDI data was kind of corrupted and I had to go back and reconstruct it. By that time I had already bragged to Masterworks about the concept and what I was going to be able to do. And in order to make it happen it was month after month of excruciating detail to try to put the thing together.
In retrospect it was so much in the cracks there really wasn't enough of an audience to make it even close to being worth doing much more of it. The serious classical snoots, as you called them, didn't want to hear about Bach being played on the synthesizer. It was too much of a novelty. And I was not taking the novelty approach like Wendy Carlos or some of the other synth people of that time. I wanted it to be thought of as just another legitimate interpretation of Bach. So the classical people were not interested in it and my jazz people were also not interested because it was too classical. [laughs] There I was stuck in the middle of it. Having fun up to a point. But after a while it was time to go back into the jazz world.
MF: So that cured you of the classical stuff.
MF: Do you use MIDI and sequencers nowadays?
BJ: Yes, much more than most people. I'm finding that so many people have been switching to ProTools and just staying in the audio mode. But I love the flexibility of MIDI. I can play stuff and be really creative and two weeks later change individual notes, change what the sounds are. Say if you have a synth part when you commit to audio, you've committed. And if you change your mind you have to go all the way back and restructure it again. But I try to stay in the MIDI mode as long as I can. For example, with my piano I record MIDI and I have a Disklavier at my home studio. Any time I record, even if I'm doing a trio project, I record MIDI also. During the course of recording, the piano may go out of tune, whatever. But if I've recorded in MIDI I can go back and tune the piano, get everything set up just right, and have the computer play it back. It's the best of both worlds.
MF: Are you on MAC or PC?
BJ: MAC. I use MOTU's Digital Performer. But I end up having to work in ProTools because everybody else does. By the time I end up in the studio the project usually has to be converted into ProTools. But ProTools has some decent MIDI, it just doesn't have as powerful MIDI sequencing as Performer and maybe a few other programs.
MF: Tell us a little bit about this Bob James' Show Boat Cruise 2005 that's coming up.
BJ: It came to me out of the blue. I was quite shocked when Gary Kirkland, who's putting the whole thing together, called me and asked me if I would host it. He had to explain to me even what he was talking about. I've never been on a cruise, so I'm still a virgin in the cruise world, and that's going to change presumably in the first week of January. We'll see how it goes. My stomach is not the world's most seaworthy.
Gary Kirkland wants the cruise to be much more casual and spontaneous than these events sometimes are where the music is just a basic show and standard entertainment. He's put together an eclectic group of musicians who will be jamming and doing some unknown things late into the evening. We set the stage areas up and hired the people with that in mind. Much of what will happen is not necessarily on the program. It will just be spontaneous.
Nathan East is going, Harvey Mason is going. Tom Scott is going to be one of the musical directors who's playing a lot on his own. He's going to be playing for Michael McDonald, who's our main headliner. We have some more rock people—Eddie Money, Robben Ford. Plus a bunch of others including, Dan Siegel, the Gregg Rolie Band, Donny Baldwin's Bay Area All-Star Band, Anne Kerry Ford, Charlie Dechant, Gabriel Hasselback. It should be very interesting. And we're advertising specifically to a group of cruise goers who are interested in that kind of thing and are open-minded as to what they're going to be getting musically. I think it should be fun for everybody.
MF: Have you played with Robben Ford before?
BJ: I know Robben, but I don't think he and I have ever played together. I bump into him periodically. Years ago we may have done a couple of sessions in LA together. But we've never performed together. So that's one of things I'm really looking forward to.
MF: What are you recording right now?
BJ: There are two or three things I'm working on. The one that's got me obsessed is something that started about a year ago in which I've been trying to combine my music with Chinese musicians using traditional Chinese instruments. I hooked up with some very talented young musicians who were students at the Shanghai conservatory. I've been learning as much as I can about their instruments. I've been over there twice already to work with them and develop some ideas. Then I'm going over in January to spend a week and try to wrap it up. It's been a very unusual undertaking for me. I've learned a lot and I'm pretty excited about it.
MF: Sounds like a very unusual undertaking for anybody, ever.
BJ: It is, but in light of what we were talking about earlier—the way things change—I had become aware over the course of the year working on this of how prominent China is figuring in the twenty-first century and the next few decades. In some ways whether we want to or not it's very prudent for us to learn more about that culture rather than thinking about it the way many people do as something that's so foreign that we can't even understand it beyond chop suey. I've been through it with Japan, where I've been going so many years. They embrace jazz wholeheartedly and it gave me a chance to learn a lot about the Japanese culture. It's been a highlight of my life and a very strong learning experience to embrace it and learn more about it rather than just experience it as a tourist.
So I'm trying to apply some of that same philosophy to learning more about China. Because I never really knew anything about China. There's been very little penetration of jazz into that culture, very few performances have taken place and jazz is a totally new thing for them. They've only been able to listen to Western music for the last ten years or so in the new regime over there. So with its opening to the west and all of this trade going on now, it seemed to me a great time to jump in and see what was really happening.
MF: Is Fourplay going to be playing in Asia this year?
BJ: We're doing a show in Seoul, Korea right after the cruise. And we're still negotiating about the possibility of going to Japan to do the Blue Note tour over there, possibly in April. Nathan's going to come with me to Shanghai. He's never been there. Having him there as an inspiration in the studio is going to be great.
MF: He's really a fabulous player.
BJ: He's way up at the top of my list in terms of musicianship, spirit, attitude—everything about him. And on his basic instrument he understands what so few bass players understand and care about. He takes care of his own world first, which is the stability and solidity of the bottom end of the music. If it comes time for any filigree or showboating, he treats it like an arranger or a producer would—only when it's needed. And he can really make the most out of very few notes. His sound, his pitch—all of those subtle things make a huge difference, Nathan's at the pinnacle of understanding that stuff and he's constantly refining his craft. It's a great pleasure to work with him.
MF: Thanks for sharing your time.
BJ: You're welcome.
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