One of the most commercially successful jazz musicians of the 1970s and '80s, pianist Bob James is in the history books as one of the prime movers in the "smooth jazz" movement.
What does that mean, exactly? For James, who'd arranged and/or produced seminal works by the likes of Grover Washington Jr., Stanley Turrentine and Maynard Ferguson, it meant he had enormous success with his own albums of beautifully written and arranged jazz, with memorable melodies and elegant airs.
He took a lot of flak for what some critics (and musicians too) perceived as a commercial distillation of the jazz ethos.
Still, One, BJ4, Touchdown, Lucky Seven and others re–wrote what jazz could be. James' collaborations with guitarist Earl Klugh (One on One, Two of a Kind) and David Sanborn (Double Vision) expanded the audience enormously. He won a pair of well–deserved Grammys.
And his albums still sound great today.
Since 1991, James has anchored the jazz supergroup Fourplay (with Nathan East, Chuck Loeb and Harvey Mason), which continues to play to Beatlemania–scale audiences in the Far East and elsewhere.
He's lived in the Savannah area (for a quarter of each year) since the early 2000s, and has lately been gigging and recording with local guitar virtuoso Howard Paul.
This week, James is playing a rare (extremely rare) solo piano concert, a benefit for the Children's Hospital at Memorial University Medical Center.
Back in the 1980s, "smooth jazz" was almost a dirty word to jazz purists. How do you feel about the term?
Bob James: We might have inspired these business radio people to come up with that term, but it sure didn't come from the musicians. I think there was some success, mostly in a background way, with the type of station that chose smoother tracks to play. The bad part about it for us was that it stereotyped all of the music. There might be one palatable "smooth" track for those radio people, that fit their formula, out of the 10 tracks on an album, but if you got airplay with that one track you were labeled a smooth jazz artist.
There are people, even amongst the artists themselves, who feel there's something wrong with being commercially successful. That does put a stigma on the music, that sophisticated things only appeal to a very small amount of people. Fortunately, I don't have a hangup about that.
That's almost exactly what David Sanborn said when I put that question to him.
Bob James: Ironically, I'm working with him right now. He and I are finally doing the followup to our Double Vision album — 26 years later! We're almost done with it, actually. We've gone in a quite different direction — we used as our model the Dave Brubeck Quartet, with the same instrumentation. Dave being a big fan of Paul Desmond. So we have the alto sax, piano, bass and drums covered. We pretty much did the whole record acoustic quartet.
We call it a raw way of playing. It's been therapeutic, it's been fascinating. Because so much of the records in the last 25 years have become more and more produced, with electronics and everything else.
It was apparent that, starting with your earliest records, the music was composition–based, as opposed to improv, or looser forms. And that probably also irked the purists — it had a lot more form that what people thought of as jazz — don't you think?
Bob James: More written, more pared. That was true. And I'll accept that whether it comes as a criticism or just an evaluation. I've struggled throughout my whole career with trying to make a balance between being interested in being a composer and an arranger, and a pianist. Most of the time, I've ended up saying "Well, that's what I do," and I couldn't choose one and just eliminate the other. I have been encouraged to say "Let your music be all of that." And part of my artist personality was definitely those arrangements that came out of my training in college.
You'd started as a bebop pianist. During those heady success days, did you miss that simplicity?
Bob James: Every time I go too far away from it, I do miss it. I do feel almost a responsibility, as a pianist, to perform in that classic mode, the piano bass drums trio. I love doing it, and I still do some gigs in that mode. Even more stripped away, the biggest possible challenge for a pianist is to have nothing else, just the piano, and play solo.
I've done very, very little of that, and this concert coming up is a big challenge for me. I'm excited about it, but also nervous because I won't have any of my comrades there that can play the next solo while I rest a little bit. There's no place to hide!
Where does Fourplay fit into all this?
Bob James: We're in our 22nd year together. It has fit very prominently in my life over the last half a dozen years. To the degree that I still have so much fun doing it — I get the chance to do my thing as a composer and make an artistic statement — it was so comfortable for me that I was almost like "Hey, this is enough for me." But it isn't quite enough.
We felt from the beginning that what made the group really fun is that we were all four doing separate things, and every few years or so we'd get together. And the music that we would make together as a unit reflected all of those different influences. It almost is the very core of jazz, to me. Because every time you play a solo, it's a new thing. It's blank. And what you put into that solo is a reflection of, how adventurous can you be?
And if you're not going forward and thinking about new stuff, you're playing the formula. And in jazz, we all know that when we hear it. I hope that never happens to me.