IN EVERY SPORT, THERE ARE PLAYERS THAT, WHILE YOU MAY NOT EVER REALLY NOTICE THEM, THEY ALWAYS SEEM TO BE ON THE WINNING AND CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM. YOGI BERRA WAS ONE OF THOSE GUYS, MAGIC JOHNSON ANOTHER. THEY ONLY KNOW HOW TO SUCCEED.
BOB JAMES IS ONE OF THOSE TYPES OF GUYS. HE’S BEEN ON COUNTLESS SESSIONS THAT HAVE BEEN BEST SELLERS. HE WAS THE KEYBOARDIST IN RESIDENCE FOR THE CLASSIC CTI ALBUMS IN THE 70S THAT SET THE STANDARD FOR JAZ Z RECORDINGS. HIS WORK WITH GROVER WASHINGTON JR MADE JAZZ A HOUSEHOLD NAME. WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME THAT HAPPENED?!?
BESIDES ALL OF THAT, HIS BAND FOURPLAY HAS BEEN A PERENNIALLY POPULAR BAND. FORMING BACK IN 1990 WITH HARVEY MASON, LEE RITENOUR AND NATHAN EAST, WITH ONLY CHANGES IN THE GUITAR THE BAND HAS REMAINED POPULAR, AND POPULARLY TOGETHER FOR 25 YEARS.
WE RECENTLY HAD A CHANCE TO CATCH UP WITH THE EVER-PRESENT JAMES, WHO IS STILL IN DEMAND AS A SIDEMAN AND ARRANGER.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTERESTED IN JAZZ?
I guess I was a little bit of a rebel when I was in high school. My mother started me with piano lessons really, really early at four years old. They discovered that I had some aptitude for the piano, but I really didn’t like to practice very much, and she was pretty much interested in having me pursue classical music.
I found a way to play in a couple of dance bands, and started listening to records, gradually developing a pretty strong interest in jazz. By the time I got to college (I went to the University of Michigan) it was definitely my main interest.
ANY ARTIST IN PARTICULAR PIQUE YOUR INTEREST?
It was really early, so I had a minimum amount of opportunities to actually listen. Strangely, I remember a Stan Kenton record called Cuban Fire that happened to be in my parents collection. I don’t even know why, as they weren’t even big fans. There was also Afro Cuban Jazz Suite by Chico O’Farrill that I loved. Then, just little by little I became pretty interested in what was called the “West Coast Movement” with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker; that intrigued me.
I came from a real small town in Missouri. Marshall, MO. There was really not much opportunity to hear or get to know a lot. It really wasn’t until I got to college that my listening expanded and I started going to Detroit and started sitting in on some pretty interesting jam sessions. It was a gradual process.
YOUR FIRST RECORDINGS WERE WITH QUINCY JONES. HOW DID YOU LINK UP WITH HIM?
At the end of my college days, I knew that there was this jazz festival in Notre Dame, a collegiate jazz festival which was kind of a competition. Pretty much as a lark, I wasn’t very serious about it as I had a trio and we were playing a lot of avant garde music at the time, we decided that we would go to this festival and play some of our avant garde music to see if we could shock the listeners and the judges.
It just so happened that Quincy Jones and also Henry Mancini were both on the judges panel that year. We played not only straight-ahead jazz be also our avant garde stuff and it definitely caught the ear of Quincy. We won the competition that year; Quincy was at that time the A&R (“Artist and Repetoire” which is now called “producer”) guy for Mercury, and he signed my trio to a record deal. This became my first album in 1963 called Bold Conceptions.
That’s how I met Quincy; we became friends and it was somewhat on his encouragement that I decided to make the move to come to New York. As a result of some of his connections there I met some people and got my career started.
YOU PUT OUT AN AVANT GARDE ALBUM RIGHT AFTER AS WELL, WHICH MAY BE A SURPRISE TO YOUR FANS.
Yes, two years later I was still very much interested in that field for a few years and in 1965 I made a record called Explosions on the ESP label.
FOR YOUR FANS THAT KNOW YOU ONLY FOR CROSSOVER MUSIC, THAT’S A SECRET PART OF YOUR LIFE
I guess it is. I get a big kick out of the fact sometimes when people go on a deep search and they accidentally come across the Explosions record not knowing what they’re in for! (laughs) It’s definitely a shocker for them, but that was the whole idea at the time. I think that many, many musicians back then were pushing the envelope trying to stretch the boundaries of what you could actually do and have it be called “music.”
I got involved in that philosophical idea and was pursuing things by John Cage and (Karlheinz) Stockhausen and a lot of the influential composers who were creating the music at that time.
THEN YOU PLAYED WITH SARAH VAUGHAN FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THAT?
Playing with her was immediately after that. That was my first steady job; in fact the same year that I recorded Explosions was when I got the job working for Sarah.
It was a big deal. I was a big fan of hers and it was very challenging. Clearly the avant garde field was not making it possible for me to make a living (laughs). Nobody wanted to pay for that! But Sarah was at the top of her field, and my favorite jazz vocalist, so I was quite excited to get that job.
It was challenging; the next four and a half years that I worked with her I often refer to as a second definitely felt that I had to rise to the occasion to do justice to the fact that Sarah had performed with all of the jazz greats at that time. Guys like Oscar Peterson and everybody else.
But I also felt that when I did my best and got it right I could inspire her and make her sing better. It was a very inspirational thing for me to realize what kind of power the accompanist has over a singer or an instrumentalist, for that matter.
During that time I realized I really liked being a supportive pianist, and I’ve continued that way up to this day. I still like that role probably better than being “stuck” in the role out there as a soloist.
SPEAKING OF BEING A SUPPORTER…YOU ARE THE PIANIST ON PRACTICALLY ALL OF THE ALBUMS FOR ARGUABLY THE LAST JAZZ LABEL THAT GAINED MASS POPULARITY, CTI. HOW DID THAT OCCUR?
Once again, Quincy Jones was very instrumental and directly the reason that I got involved with Creed Taylor. Quincy had called me to play and write a couple of arrangements on his Walking in Space record.
That proved to be an audition of me to Creed. I had not worked with him at that time; Creed liked my arrangements, and the fact that Quincy liked me was probably enough of a recommendation. Very soon after that, Creed started hiring me for other stuff.
I did some playing with Hubert Laws on one of the first CTI records, and little by little it led to a steady job. He was very prolific at that time; he was making a different record a week. I was getting hired either as a pianist or as arranger on a whole lot of CTI projects. That was a great time for me.
EVERY RECORD WAS A HIT BY FREDDIE HUBBARD, CHET BAKER, STANLEY TURRENTINE, GEORGE BENSON AND HUBERT LAWS. AND THOSE COVERS WITH THE HIP PHOTOS WERE SO CLASSY! YOU COULD ORDER THE GLOSSIES OF THEM SEPARATELY.
That was one of Creed’s very inspired ideas. He was working with Pete Turner, who was the art photographer that Creed really liked. His albums had a very distinctive look. You’d see it in the record store before you even listened to it.
DID ANY OF THESE ARTISTS THAT YOU WORKED WITH THEN REALLY IMPRESS YOU?
Most of them really impressed me, one way or another. Just the fact that I got a chance to work with a lot of people like Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. It’s a very long list of people that Creed was using, and if I got hired to play the piano, whether it was a Paul Desmond, Chet Baker or George Benson album , it was very much like a repertory group at that time.
I learned a tremendous amount from them. And, having become somewhat of a “staff arranger,” I got hired to do Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, Hank Crawford’s Wildflower and then eventually came Grover Washington who took off and became big with Creed and was very successful. I then became associated with Grover and became his arranger and sometimes composer.
WHY DO YOU THINK THAT LABEL, AND JAZZ AS A GENRE, WAS SO POPULAR BACK THEN, AS OPPOSED TO BEING SO MARGINALIZED TODAY? IN OTHER WORDS, YOU WERE PART OF THE “CROSSOVER” MOVEMENT. WHY DID IT CROSSOVER THEN, AND IT’S NOT CROSSING OVER NOW?
Yeah, it doesn’t “crossover” much now. Those years were the early 70s. What sticks out in my memory about it was the gradual shift over to electrical instruments, especially the bass. The role of the bass in my mind was changing. This new bass required a new bass line, which was not a “walking” kind of a groove.
And, at the same time a lot of us were influenced by rock (music). We were getting jobs on rock record dates, so the shift from a swing rhythm over to an even eighth-type rock type rhythm was happening. Everyone in jazz was influenced by that in one degree or another. And, as we can see in Miles Davis’ very eclectic history of recordings that he got influenced. Everyone did in one way or another. \
I also remember the slight shift over into modal harmony rather than the harmony based on standards. Things like “I Got Rhythm” and “April In Paris.” The newer musicians were enjoying kind of improvising on modal stuff that we had heard from Bill Evans. He was influencing Miles in that way where it would just be one chord for eight bars and then another chord for the next eight bars, instead of one chord every two beats.
That shift was gradually happening in the 1970s, and I guess I could say that I was part of it. I also got identified with the Fender Rhodes electric piano, even though it happened accidentally.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN? THAT IS YOUR SIGNATURE INSTRUMENT!
My memory of it, even then, was that I never liked that instrument as much as I liked the acoustic piano. But, I got hired to do a lot of dates, and some of them turned out to be very successful, so I became to be identified with that Fender Rhodes sound. So, it became an important element in my career.
YOU ARE IDENTIFIED AS ONE OF THE ORIGINATORS OF WHAT WE CALL “CROSSOVER” JAZZ. HAS THAT BECOME AN ALBATROSS TO YOU, A HELPFUL LABEL, OR ARE YOU INDIFFERENT TO LABELS?
You have to confront it. It happens to us whether we like it or not. We’re not the ones who put the labels on our music, usually. Certainly that wasn’t the case with “smooth” jazz. That term I’ve never liked very much and none of the musicians like it that much, other than the fact that if a smooth jazz radio station is successful, it means you get airplay. People will hear your music. Then they will make up their own mind about it.
I always refer to the fact that some of our music is “smooth” and some of it’s “rough.”
BACK IN THE SWING ERA, BANDS WERE LABELED AS EITHER “HOT” OR “SWEET”.
Sure, exactly! And if the radio station only choose to play your smoother cuts, that’s their choice. And some airplay is better than no airplay. I feel bad for the musicians on their way up who are starting and are in desperate need of getting their music heard. For them, the cart is pulling the horse rather than the other way around. They have to make music in a certain way, and that kind of music doesn’t come from the heart. It’s from the need to make a living.
So, they listen to a smooth jazz radio station, and think “Oh, that’s the correct way to play jazz” and they do it. But, hopefully in our case, I think I can speak for myself, that I think that I have pulled my own cart. I’ve made my music the way I like it; from the heart. And, if it turns out smooth or if it turns out smooth, or if it turns out rough, that’s for the public to decide.
YOU WERE ALSO ONE OF THE FOUNDING MEMBERS OF THE BAND FOURPLAY, WHICH IS CELEBRATING ITS 25TH ANNIVERSARY WITH THE “SILVER” ALBUM. HOW DID YOU INITIALLY MEET GUITARIST LEE RITENOUR?
Fourplay started mostly with Harvey Mason and me. We had been friends for a long time; I had invited Harvey to come out to the East Coast for a lot of recording sessions, including the ones I did with Grover Washington Jr. So I’d known Harvey for a long time.
I had only just met Lee. I’m not sure which was the original session that I played on for Lee, but in my memory of it, he had asked me to play on one of his projects. We were trying to decide about payment for it, and we came up with the idea of a reciprocal: I’ll play on your record if you play on mine. Even each other out.
My Grand Piano Canyon project (in 1990) was my way of getting the reciprocal from Lee. I had played on one of Lee’s projects before that; it might have been the Wes Bound album. So, I had to go out to Los Angeles to do the reciprocal, and I thought of having both Harvey and Lee on my project would be a really good thing.
But, I didn’t know who to use on bass. So, I asked Harvey and Lee separately who they would recommend, and they both came up with the same name, Nathan East. That was a good enough recommendation for me to use Nathan even though we had not met before that time.
So, for my sessions on the Grand Piano Canyon project , those were the three other guys in the rhythm section. We were all loving it; there was something in the chemistry that was really working, and we were all feeling that the chemistry was beyond what a normal session could be.
So, for whatever reason, we started this conversation about a group identity being different from our individual identities. I remember asking them if they had ever been a member of a long term type of group, and I don’t believe they had. I know that I hadn’t; I had never been a team member of a group.
The timing was that I had a job as the head of jazz A&R (artist and repertoire) for Warner Brothers at that time, and I was able to take the idea of a group album into Warner Brothers to get support for it, and they liked the idea.
When we first started I don’t think we had really even come up with a name yet or not. We were just planning on going into the studio and see what would happen if we went in with a quartet.
YOU’VE LASTED FOR A QUARTER OF A CENTURY, EVEN WITH SOME GUITAR CHANGES
I’m very proud of that. We certainly would not have predicted that in 1990 in would last for 25 years. It’s become fascinating to see how that identity, the branding of the name Fourplay, and the idea of it has been such a big factor. It’s certainly been a big factor in my life. I’ve been able to reach a lot more people than I would have otherwise. The friendship has been great..
Yes, our guitar players (Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton being the only changes-ed note) have been a little more fickle (laughs), but our current guy, Chuck Loeb, has been fantastic. He’s ambitious, and he really represents to me all of the ingredients that we love: very firm jazz roots in his history, he’s a great producer in the studio and he’s a prolific composer. All of those reasons were the reason why we chose him. He’s also injected a great new spirit into the group as well ; it’s helped us stay motivated to keep together.
SPEAKING OF STAYING TOGETHER, ON YOUR LATEST DUET RECORD WITH NATHAN EAST, YOU DEDICATED IT TO YOUR WIFE OF MANY YEARS. SO, YOU LIKE LONG TERM RELATIONSHIPS. IS THERE A LIFE PHILOSOPHY THAT YOU’VE LEARNED OVER THE YEARS THAT MAKES YOU SO LOYAL OVER THE LONG HAUL?
Maybe. I haven’t consciously thought of that. My wife has been extremely influential in my life and in my music career. We’ve been married for 52 years, which is a bit of phenomenon in this day and age. Just that alone makes me a believer in the idea of loyalty and ‘two against the world’ and in the case of Fourplay, it’s ‘four against the world’! (laughs)
Both my parents and my wife’s parents were monogamous and married to each other for their entire lives. I do believe that a relationship grows, you find the people that you identify with the most and it’s a good idea to hang with it and let it develop.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR LEGACY?
I want my music to be my legacy. It represents my passion for my whole life. I love the fact that being in the recording field, and making records that take on an identity of their own, they have a “life” that will hopefully go beyond my human life, and that I have created music that has found its way around the world. I’m very lucky and proud to still be in a position where I can keep doing it. I just want to keep doing it as long as I can.
AS YOU READ THIS INTERVIEW, YOU CAN SEE A CONTINUOUS THREAD BEING WOVEN THROUGHOUT THE DISCUSSION. LONG TERM FRIENDS AND RELATIONSHIPS. TEAM EFFORT AND SUPPORT OVER THE LONG HAUL, NOTHING ABOUT SELF-EXALTATION, BUT EVERYTHING ABOUT BEING A SERVANT TO ALL. THESE ARE THE QUALTIES THAT EVERYONE ADMIRES IN SOMEONE ELSE, BUT DOESN’T WANT TO PAY THE PRICE TO DEVELOP IN ONESELF. THE BENEFITS OF NURTURING AND INCULCATING THESE CHARACTER TRAITS ARE SHOWN OVER THE LONG HAUL, AND THEY SHINE BRIGHTLY IN BOB JAMES’ WORLD.