Bob James made his name in fusion and smooth jazz, but some of us believe the pianist’s acoustic trio records represent his highest art. His 1996 album Straight Up, with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, and 2004’s Take It from the Top, with bassist James Genus and drummer Billy Kilson, are career highlights and gems of their genre. Those records will never escape the shadow of 1978’s Touchdown or 1975’s One, but now James gives us the best of both worlds, revisiting his biggest hits in a trio format and tossing in other tunes.
Despite its title, Feel Like Making LIVE! isn’t a concert recording. It was recorded “live in the studio” with old pal Kilson and young bassist Michael Palazzolo, who’s been in James’ bands for several years now. Rather than swing like a bop trio, they play classy, R&B- and pop-tinged jazz that’s both accessible and adventurous. “Angela,” known as the theme to TV’s Taxi, is here in all its glory, Fender Rhodes and upright bass trading off that signature flute line. “Nautilus,” a hip-hop sampler’s delight, is stripped to its funky basics, with James delivering melody on a concert grand. The medley of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Making Love” and his own “Night Crawler” works wonderfully, the R&B of the former bleeding into the funk of the latter.
James reshapes Elton John’s “Rocket Man” into a mysterious, slithering number and Petula Clark’s “Downtown” into a jaunty, hesitating blues with classical flourishes. The trio couldn’t have made a better pick for their one jazz standard either: Their take on “Misty” is as classy as Erroll Garner’s, with James keeping it simple, Palazzolo plucking discriminately, and Kilson brushing slowly.
Something must be said about the recording quality, because it’s a hallmark of James’ work, and it’s beautiful here—everything mic’d perfectly, with precisely the right amount of reverb to make the snare crisp, the bass extra woody, and the piano crystal-clean.