At 82, the American pianist Bob James has enjoyed a diverse musical journey that’s driven him from 60s modern jazz to 70s funk, hip-hop, bebop and beyond. His career began in 1963 when his skills as a player and arranger were spotted by none other than Quincy Jones who signed his trio to the Mercury label for an an album of experimental bop. The group’s avant-garde phase was short-lived but led to a more straight-ahead release before James retired from recording for almost a decade, instead arranging for and accompanying the great Sarah Vaughan and, from 1969, acts such as Stanley Turrentine, Hubert Laws and Grover Washington Jr. at Creed Taylor’s now-legendary CTI label.
It was during his tenure at CTI that James revived his role as keys man and composer to record a run of electric solo albums (between 1974 and 76) that many still cite as his finest recorded work. James also enjoyed commercial notoriety towards the end of 1970s with the track Angela – which became more commonly known as the theme from popular US comedy sitcom Taxi – before making his mark in the 1980s with two Grammy-winning collaboration albums – One On One with Earl Klugh (1980) and Double Vision with David Sanborn (1986).
From here James went on to work alongside other great artists such as Kirk Whalum, Keiko Matsui and Till Bronner, release over 14 solo albums, record as many with smooth supergroup Fourplay, form his own record label and prove hugely significant in hip-hop circles to the likes of Eric B and Rakim, Run D.M.C, De La Soul and D.J Shadow – just four of the scores of artists that have sampled his music over the last 40 years.
Reflecting some of the highs of such a sundry career, Feel Like Making Live! returns James to the confines of a trio, reworking many of his most popular tunes in a warm studio setting. Stunningly recorded, the album features the stellar talents of bassist Michael Palazzolo and drummer Billy Kilson and opens, aptly, with Angela, arranged here with a new lifting swing section and the creamy tone of James’s Rhodes piano replacing the tune’s original refrain on flute.
A slow, jazzed-up reading of Elton John’s Rocket Man follows, with James sliding over to piano to play its familiar melody line over rich bass and a crisp, metronomic pop groove from Kilson. Even when he tackles pop classics like this, you can hear how much of James’s approach to playing and arranging is hung around strong, unrelenting grooves and accessible melodies.
Away from the heavy sax and 80s synths of Double Vision, Maputo is more rawly driven here, with a skittery half-time shuffle beat providing the perfect bed for James to replay Sanborn’s sassy lines on keys and Palazzolo to plant one of his strongest solos of the set. A player of great diversity, he provides more four-string wizardry through a Latinate take of Grover Washington Jr’s Mister Magic, a heavy-swinging Nardis, and Submarine, one of three tracks recorded by this very trio on James’s 2018 Expresso album.
Punchy with both live and looped drums, Submarine is also notable in skilfully subsuming a sample of another James staple in the set, Nautilus – the 70s James jam, itself famously interpolated by rappers and producers aplenty since its release. While the album celebrates music mostly from James’s own heavy catalogue, a welcome smattering of standards sit nicely alongside obvious fan favourites such as Westchester Lady and James’s famed arrangement of Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Making Love.
Following a zestful dance through another James live staple, Topside (climaxing with Kilson killing it at the kit), Erroll Garner’s Misty is performed traditionally, smooth-flowing with light piano, brushes and subtle bass, leaving Tony Hatch’s Downtown to be delivered as a funky shuffle. This contrast in material, and the often ingenious new ideas James brings to the arrangements makes Feels Like Making Live! a rousing and replayable listen. It also highlights a uniqueness in James in that he remains, after nearly 60 years in the business, a multi-layered artist with the ability to still stretch, ooze soul and play with a certain sentiment and swagger that Kilson and Palazzolo can only tastefully augment.
Angela; Rocket Man; Maputo; Topside; Misty; Avalabop; Nautilus; Downtown; Niles Ahead; Feel Like Making Love/Night Crawler; Submarine; Mister Magic; Nardis; Westchester Lady (82.00)
James (p, kyb); Michael Palazzolo (b); Billy Kilson (d). Sage Arts Studio, Arlington, Washington, 8-9 October 2018.