For someone looking to learn about Bob James’ artistry, his latest album, Espresso (Evosound), might be a good place to start. A trio recording built on a piano/bass/drums foundation, its tracks reflect the multifaceted nature of the veteran keyboardist’s career, which spans six decades and virtually every genre of jazz and pop. “I just wanted to have the chance to go public with the things that meant the most to me,” James says. “And as I made the decision with all the different tunes, it was more like putting together a scrapbook of my own taste and how I feel and what makes me happy to do it, with the crux or the foundation of it being the trio setting.”
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James is joined on Espresso by drummer Billy Kilson and bassist Michael Palazzolo. The three came together in October 2017 to perform a series of shows at New York’s Blue Note and clicked immediately. “It was a lot of fun, very stimulating, and really inspired me to make a commitment to record it,” James tells me by phone from Hawaii while on tour with the trio.
Espresso is named for the beverage, of which James is so fond that he collects espresso cups on the road and then photographs and posts them on Facebook. It’s his first studio album as a leader since 2006’s Urban Flamingo (Koch), and his first trio recording since 2004’s Take It from the Top (Koch).
The album contains a varied set of originals and covers, including an elegant piano-led reading of the Grover Washington, Jr., classic “Mister Magic.” James arranged and played on the original 1975 recording. “We would hear it in clubs and cover bands playing that song so many times over many years, I kind of felt like it was time to interpret it a different way,” he says. “So I changed up the groove and tried to reinvent it as a piano piece without saxophone.”
James’ take on Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was inspired by his wife Judy, who died in 2017. “We had a very, very long life together, and she was more of a fan of the early music of the 20th century than she was of jazz,” James says. “Whenever I would want to play something at the piano that would please her, it was closer to the Great American Songbook—Gershwin, Cole Porter, et cetera—or going back even further, Al Jolson, that era.” James imbues his version with plenty of verve, using the well-known melody as a starting point for an improvisatory excursion. “It stuck in my mind as a kind of memory of the times I had spent with her,” he says. “And I was inspired to see if I could convert the traditional feeling of the song without losing that aspect, but try to make it my own and bring it into my world.”
The funky “Submarine” tips its hat to James’ 1974 hit “Nautilus,” which has been sampled by many hip-hop superstars, including Run-D.M.C., Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Ghostface Killah, and Slick Rick. The appeal of that particular tune as a sample source mystifies James. “I can’t even tell you to date exactly why, what made it happen,” he says. At first, he had to contend with artists using his work without licensing it. “It was awkward,” he notes. “Fortunately, in more recent times, that’s very rare when the stuff is used illegitimately.”
The widespread sampling of “Nautilus” and other tunes from his repertoire introduced James’ music to new generations of fans. “I hear back from the hip-hop fans that many of them have been inspired to go back to the original and listen to where the sample came from,” he says. “I’ve gotten some new fans that I’m sure that I never would never have gotten otherwise.”
James, who turned 79 on Christmas Day, has enjoyed the kind of career most artists in any genre of music dream about. He’s won two Grammy Awards and had multiple gold and platinum albums. His work during the 1970s helped define contemporary and smooth jazz. He’s one-quarter of the hugely popular smooth-jazz superband Fourplay. He’s recorded award-winning and commercially successful albums with saxophonist David Sanborn and guitarist Earl Klugh, as well as with keyboardist Keiko Matsui and his Fourplay bandmate bassist Nathan East. He’s showcased his classical leanings on three albums. And he composed and performed the infectiously catchy theme to the hit ’70s TV sitcom Taxi.
Yet his jazz roots run deep. Born in Marshall, Mo., James began taking piano lessons with a nun from the local Catholic school at the age of four. Drawn to jazz early, he decided to make it his life as a college student at the University of Michigan.
James counts Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, and Count Basie among his jazz heroes but says, “I think more than the individual people, the idea of jazz—the improvising and the freedom of it, and I guess the rebelliousness of it, too—appealed to me back then.” He adds, “In those early days I hated practicing, and jazz always represented something that was more mischievous, more free, and I always loved the danger and the excitement of improvising.”
At first, he played free jazz. “In my first move to New York I was very much involved in avant-garde music, trying to be out in the fringe area and enjoying that exploration,” he recalls. “But real life set in and wanting to make a livelihood and all of that, so a lot of things changed.”
In 1962, James and his band entered a competition at the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival—judged by Quincy Jones—and won. Jones signed James and his band to Mercury Records, where he was working as an A&R executive. That led to James’ first album, Bold Conceptions. “I guess everybody in one way or another has a guru or a person who influences them the most,” James says. “And certainly Quincy was a major part of what gave me so many opportunities in the business.” Jones introduced James to Sarah Vaughan, and he served a stint as her accompanist and music director.
And it was through Jones that James met producer Creed Taylor, whose label, CTI Records, produced some of the most successful jazz albums of the ’70s. “In the early 1970s, Quincy invited me to play and arrange on his record Walking in Space. It was one of the first CTI albums that Quincy did with Creed Taylor, and that ended up kind of being an audition for me,” James recalls. “Just the fact that Quincy wanted me to play and arrange was enough of a calling card to get Creed Taylor interested. And shortly after that, Creed Taylor started hiring me to play and to arrange on a lot of his projects.”
James recorded four albums under his own name for CTI that established him as a major—and heavily sampled—force in the then-burgeoning jazz-rock idiom. It was at CTI that he was introduced to the instrument that helped define his ’70s sound: the Fender Rhodes.
Actually, he says, the first time he played the Rhodes he didn’t like it. “I reluctantly began to try to cope with it, because the touch and the sound and everything about it was so different from the acoustic piano,” he says. “I was resistant to it, but I did find that I had the ability to be flexible enough or willing enough to change my touch or change my style to adapt to the limitations or what was kind of peculiarly unique to that instrument.” James has endorsed Yamaha pianos for more than 20 years, but he remains fond of the Rhodes; he’s even playing it on the tour supporting Espresso.
James says he’s enjoyed introducing his fans to different aspects of his musical life during his recent live shows. “They’ve talked about it to me afterwards that it’s music that doesn’t fall directly into the straight-ahead category, it doesn’t fall directly into the smooth jazz category,” he says. “And that’s what I love about it. I have resisted trying to have the music be in a box. I like to stay outside the box.”