Thursday, October 6, 2016

Interview:-- Bob James (Jazz Keyboardist - Arranger)

"...keep making music with conviction and passion and hope for the best."
~ Bob James ~

The smooth jazz genre has had more than its share of eye-rolling albums that got rushed into stores by maypop musicians hoping to cash in.  All air. No substance.

Bob James doesn't play that.  This is the good stuff.  When it comes to smooth jazz...Bob James knows how to ice a cake. Whether solo or surrounded by jazz cronies, Bob has never...ever...kept his Fender Rhodes keyboard on a short leash.

Bob James is 76 now.  At least that's what he claims it says on his passport.  He's a multi-Grammy award winner.  And for over 40 years, Bob's success and longevity can be seen and heard, not just from his own albums or the abundant work he's laid down with other artists...but within the hip-hop community, as well.  Yes, Bob James' work has become somewhat of a "go-to sample cabinet" for DJs and hip-hop producers.

Bob continues to create inspiring jazz breezes and storms with crazy-good arrangements that simply...take us there.  Grab your bags.

Bob James

Casey Chambers:  All great artists have at least one...if they're lucky.  So I'd like to jump right in and ask about the wonderful elephant in the room, your signature jazz piece..."Angela."   How did that beautiful song come together?

Bob James:  Well, I guess it's one of those things, Casey, where sometimes the stars fall into alignment and something very pivotal happens.

The whole project of working on music for the TV series..."Taxi"...came about in a very indirect way to me because I was just making my jazz records.  Doing some touring.

I got a call from the producers of "Taxi" saying that they had a copy of my fourth CTI album..."BJ4" (1977) and had been using it as experimental music when trying to establish mood for the series.  And they asked if I would go into the studio and record more music for them in a similar style or vein.

"BJ4" (1977)

So, I was very happy to get the offer.  Nevertheless, I was aware that music cues in 30 minute TV sitcoms were usually very, very short.  And I wasn't sure I could establish a similar kind of mood like one gets when playing extended six, seven or eight-minute album cuts that allow for soloing and the groove having a chance to develop.

I recommended that they allow me to treat the recording session just as if I was doing something for an album project. And so I did.  As I recall, I did about five or six different songs.  One of which I had thought would be an appropriate theme because I was expecting a show about noisy New York City taxi drivers with noisy car horns or whatever.  A very energetic kind of feeling.

Casey Chambers:  Right, I can see that.

Bob James:  But unbeknownst to me, they were already working on the opening shot of a cab going across the bridge at dusk.  And when they heard this other particular song ("Angela") which didn't even have a title at the time...they really responded to it.  They loved it.  They were wanting to go against the grain of the obvious frenetic music and go for something mellow.  I felt...who was I to argue?  I was just happy they liked it. (laughs)

"Taxi" (Opening and Closing Theme)

They later used that song in one of the early episodes ("Blind Date"...Season One : Episode 3) which was a story that involved a character named Angela.  That's how the song got its title.  And that ended up being what happened.

Casey Chambers:  How soon did you record "Angela" after you wrote it?

Bob James:  Well, very quickly.  Because they were already in the process of working on the show and on a deadline.  I convinced their music editor to treat my music as a kind of library, rather than doing specific cues and timing.

So over the seven-year history of the series, they gave me a budget to just go into the studio and record music without thinking about the timing.  And all of that ended up being the source music in a kind of "Taxi" music library, which they would pick from as they were working on each individual episode.  I did all the music in New York and they prepared, produced and edited the series in California.

"Touchdown" (1978)

Casey Chambers:  I remember spinning "Touchdown" (1978) and hearing the full-length album version of "Angela" for the first time.  It is so good, as is Eric Gale's guitar solo on it.

Bob James:  I couldn't agree with you more.  I absolutely love that solo.  He was a great, great artist and contributed so much to my music.  I miss Eric a lot.

Before I released "Touchdown", I had been naming all my albums based on numbers leading up to "BJ4."  I used a cover photograph of a nickel for my fifth album, "Heads" (1977) and I wanted to stay with the number series but make it a bit of a riddle.  Of course, it represented six points and it was my sixth album.

By the way, the song that I had originally recorded thinking it might be used as the main theme for "Taxi"...ended up being the title track on "Touchdown."  The very same piece.

"Touchdown" --  Bob James / "Touchdown" (1978)

Casey Chambers:  Funny how things work out, isn't it?  And they're both great songs.  It must have been a real backstroke hearing your music on the radio and TV week after week.

Bob James:  Oh absolutely.  I loved it. The show became a big hit.  Had a lot of fans.  It was a very sophisticated, really funny comedy that ended up going into syndication all over the world.

To this day, "Angela" is still the most requested piece that I have.  And I've heard artists talk a lot about how they get so tired of having to play the same piece over and over again.  Especially if it's a novelty piece that's trendy or something and then 20 years later it's not a novelty anymore.

And now, here it is, over 30 years later and the song still makes me happy every time I play it.  I have a guitar player in my band right now...Perry Hughes...who was also a big fan of Eric Gale,  and plays in a similar style.  And we can conjure up that mood very easily in live performance.

And I've tried to think back...what was the formula?  How can I do that again?  But then I realize there is no formula for something like that.  You just have to keep marching forward and keep making music with conviction and passion and hope for the best.

Casey Chambers:  Switching gears, you played the keyboards and did string arrangements on Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years." (1975)  How did that come about?

"Still Crazy After All These Years"  -  Paul Simon (1975)

Bob James:  Good timing. (laughs)  Michael Tannen, who was Paul's manager, was also my manager at that time.  And as I recall, Paul was looking to add a little bit of jazz influence in his arrangements.  I was doing a lot of studio work as a pianist, so he hired me to come in and play on his album.

One of my assignments was writing the arrangement for the title track..."Still Crazy After All These Years."  It was an amazing, very challenging, and very nervous-making assignment because Paul was an extremely demanding artist in the studio.  Very, very strong opinions and very deep into his own thoughts.

We had a large orchestra in the studio.  The whole room was full of musicians.  There were strings and woodwinds and french horns...whatever.  And it was expensive, although I don't think Paul really cared that much about how much it cost because he had plenty of budget to work with.

But when he first heard my arrangement for "Still Crazy After All These Years",  he immediately started picking it apart and wanting to change it.  He wanted to eliminate this or change that and I was kind of panicky.  It was not that easy to change things that I had spent several weeks preparing...the orchestration.  But I plunged forward and we tried doing the song a bunch of different ways because I wanted to cooperate with him, obviously, and I wanted to make him happy.

My most proud moment, though, and I still remember it so clearly, after several hours of him picking away at my arrangement and changing it all, Paul came over to me and said, 'Bob, do you think you could go back and try it the way you originally wrote it one more time?' (laughs)  And we did. And that is the arrangement you hear on the record.  Pretty much exactly the way I wrote it.  And the album went on to win Record Of The Year at the Grammy Awards that year.

"Still Crazy After All These Years"  --  Paul Simon / "Still Crazy..." (1975)

Casey Chambers:  Wow, that's a great story.

Bob James:  I love that story, too.  It has a very happy ending.

Casey Chambers:  Did you know the song was going to be the coveted title track at that point?

Bob James:  I don't think so.  I really wasn't...I was just a sideman hired to play a session and write a couple of arrangements, so to my memory, no.  Certainly, the fact that it ended up at the Grammy Awards was way beyond my comprehension of what could have happened.

Casey Chambers:  Well congratulations, again.  Fifty ways to win a Grammy! (laughs)  I'd like to jump back to the first album you made for CTI..."One." (1974)  That included the fantastic "dim the lights" instrumental version of "Feel Like Making Love", which you also helped Roberta Flack take to #1.  Both are equally pleasing.

"One" (1974)

Bob James:  Yes, that was another very pivotal moment for me, for sure.  Great song by Gene McDaniels, who was just a wonderful songwriter.  And once again, it was a little bit random that I was asked to play as a sideman on Roberta Flack's recording of that song.  I loved it.  We all loved it.  We all just thought this song was magical.  It's gonna be a hit.   Especially when we heard Roberta start to sing it.

Right after that session, I was in meetings with Creed Taylor to sign on to do my own album.  I was trying to choose material and I had made a comment to him that I had just recorded this fantastic song and it would be really great to do the first instrumental cover version of it.

And it was within maybe two weeks after I did Roberta's session that I went in the studio with almost the exact same rhythm section.  I had Eric Gale on guitar.  Gary King on bass. I think it was Idris Muhammad on drums.  It was my Fender Rhodes piano.  And we performed it in the same key with almost the same groove.  And what ended up happening is Roberta took longer to finish her record than I did.  My record actually came out first.  And Roberta was not very happy about that.

But we ended up making friends and it did not stand in the way of her version becoming a big hit.  In fact, at that time, many of the disc jockey's were playing both versions back to back.  'Cause it had a nice continuity of essentially the same mood.

"Feel Like Making Love"  --  Bob James Quartet (2010)

Casey Chambers:  I was a fan of "Breaking Bad" during its run and my ears perked up when I heard your version come through my speakers.  It was the episode where Walter takes his clothes off in a supermarket!  Surprising and perfect at the same time.  40 years later and the song is still making people shed their clothes.  Did you happen to see that?

Bob James:  I believe so.  I've had several friends talk about it, which is great.  I've just come back from touring all over Europe and went to a few cities I'd never been to before.  And I was playing "Feel Like Making Love" on that tour.  And the song was still getting great recognition.  It's a song that's just become a part of R&B history and just about everybody knows it.

Casey Chambers:  What have you been working on recently that we might not be aware of?

Bob James:  I kind of shifted gears two years ago and started working on a lot of classical music and composed a piano concerto that got premiered by the Tokyo Philharmonic last September.  I also had a second performance of it here in Michigan just this past June.  It was a very stimulating and challenging change in direction.  And it left me wanting to do a recording project incorporating some of that same element but still staying within the jazz world.

Casey Chambers:  Now that sounds interesting.

Bob James:  My most recent work has been with Fourplay.  We have an album called "Silver" (2015) that represents our 25th anniversary.  I also did an album titled, "The New Cool" (2015) just last year with Nathan East (bassist) from Fourplay.

"The New Cool"  -  Bob James and Nathan East (2015)

But, a studio's been 10 years since I've had a full out studio album under my own name.  I'm way overdue.  I've been working on many ideas here in my home studio and I'm just trying to zero in on a concept to do next.

Casey Chambers:  Well, you have certainly given fans a tremendous body of work to taste through the years.  Each album has been an adventure unto itself and we will definitely be looking forward to your next one.

Bob James:  I appreciate that.  That's the way it has felt for me my whole life.  That's the way I feel about music.  Especially with jazz.  It's a new adventure every time out.

Casey Chambers:  Well, Bob thank you very much for your time this morning.  I've really enjoyed talking with you.

Bob James:  I'm happy to have been a guest, Casey.  Great talking to you, too.

"Angela" -- Bob James / Live At Montreux (1985)

Bob James Official Website

Good stuff!

Casey Chambers