Before he became one of the biggest stars of smooth jazz, pianist Bob James was finding his voice. His first two albums might stun many of his present-day fans. His debut, 1963’s Bold Conceptions, is daring bebop with free-jazz fringes, and 1965’s Explosions is an avant-garde adventure, one of the first jazz records to incorporate electronics. Now, 55 years after its parts were recorded, comes Once Upon a Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions, and it continues the explorations James undertook before he went mainstream.
The album captures two trios nine months apart. They’re very different. The first, with bassist Larry Rockwell and drummer Robert Pozar, is alternately melodic and out there. Two covers are polar opposites: a sprightly bop take on Leroy Anderson’s “Serenata” and a version of Joe Zawinul’s “Lateef Minor 7th” that becomes bizarre, its pretty melody interrupted by metallic scrapes, thumps, and shouts. James’ two originals are interesting: “Once Upon a Time” starts light and airy but grows experimental and ominous as it heads for a climax. “Variations” is the weirdest tune, pitting James’ lovely melody against noises whose origins aren’t completely identifiable but call to mind horror-movie scenes and cartoon violence sound effects.
The second trio, with bassist Bill Wood and drummer Omar Clay, takes a more traditional approach, the kind that James would employ again 30 years later with his superb trio album Straight Up. Two standards—Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin” and Miles Davis’ “Solar”—get straightforward hard-bop treatments, and the old big-band ballad “Indian Summer” acquires a makeover as a quiet trio piece. The nine-minute finale lets each musician put his own imprint on an uncredited blues; notable is that this ambitious, talented, and very young pianist resists any urge to throw a lot of notes at the wall. Once Upon a Time unearths a missing piece of a major star’s development.