Bob James (piano, Fender Rhodes, MIDI keyboard); Michael Palazzolo (double bass); Billy Kilson (drums)
Recorded:Sage Arts Studio, Arlington, Washington 8-9 October 2018
Bob James has no doubt about his place in musical history: his official website describes him as an: “artist, musician, legend”. I suppose when you’ve been in the music business for almost 60 years, you can call yourself what you please. What is clear is that the 82 year-old keyboardist/composer/producer/arranger generates a wide spectrum of opinion when it comes to assessing his impact on the music world.
There are many people who revere James’ gift for creating memorable hooks and melodies, as well as his finesse as a keyboardist and arranger. But there are others who decry him as the progenitor of what became known as smooth jazz. Then there are the legions of hip-hop artists who have voraciously sampled his beats, motifs and melodies – at the time of writing (January 2022) James’ songs had been sampled more than 1500 times.
In the early 60s, James recorded a couple of jazz trio albums, but then moved to New York and focused on a career as a session musician and arranger. After working as Sarah Vaughn’s musical director for almost five years, James joined producer Creed Taylor’s CTI label in the early 1970s as an orchestrator and arranger, working with artists such as Hubert Laws and Grover Washington Jr. His rich, lush, arrangements captured a large audience and inspired others to go down the path of what eventually became known as smooth jazz. James recorded four solo albums for CTI, beginning with One, recorded in 1974. This included a cover version of Roberta Flack’s hit “Feel Like Making Love” (James played keyboards on the original recording), which gave James his first hit. This album’s title is obviously a play on this.
Subsequent works from James have included duet albums with Earl Klugh and David Sanborn, and co-founding the smooth jazz band Fourplay, with guitarist Lee Ritenour, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason. The band (with a few changes to its guitarist) has been going for more than 30 years. All these ventures have generated huge album sales and various music awards.
James’ music is generally melodic, pleasant and easy on-the-ear, but this is not meant as a criticism. The fact is that there is vast audience for this kind of music, and not everyone enjoys listening to the abstract musical explorations of John Coltrane or the loud, discordant wailings of a jazz-rock-fusion band.
In 2018, James went back to his roots, and recorded the album Espresso with a jazz trio that included young bassist Michael Palazzolo (he’s in his early 30s) and drummer Billy Kilson, who has played with artists such as George Duke, Dave Holland, Larry Carlton, Dianne Reeves and Steps Ahead. James uses the same trio for this album and also plays several tracks from Espresso. The idea was to capture the music live, as it happened, with no edits or overdubs. The studio sessions were really audio-visual events, with the band being recorded both for audio and video (the sessions were shot in 4K Ultra High Definition video).
As a result, there is a veritable feast of recording formats available for this release. This includes a 13-track CD encoded with an audio technology called MQA, which is claimed to improve sound quality (the CD was reviewed for this piece). A Super Audio CD (SACD) version offers even higher sound quality, multi-channel sound and an extra track; a Blu-ray video release comes with four bonus video tracks, multi-channel sound, interviews and an audio CD. A 4K Blu-ray version includes high resolution audio and immersive sound (an enhanced form of surround-sound). You can also get a limited edition double LP (in orange or black vinyl) with one bonus track or purchase high-quality audio files on several streaming services.
The record company has also pulled out all the stops when it comes to the CD packaging, which includes a glossy, double fold-out Digi-Pak, featuring photos from the sessions, and a fat, 36-page booklet that has more photos and extensive liner notes from jazz writer Charles Waring (who also interviews James). There is also a seven-page essay from engineer Tom Hall, who describes how the music was recorded. If you’re one of those people with a keen interest in microphone types and placement; dealing with audio leakage and reverberation issues, and correcting time interval anomalies between musical instruments, you are in for a treat. One small complaint about the notes is that the editing is a bit slack. Waring mentions a track that is only found on the end credits of the Blu-ray release, while Hall enthuses about an amazing drum break by Kilson on a tune that doesn’t appear on any format.
Although James mainly plays a Yamaha Concert Grand piano, and Palazzolo, a double bass, this isn’t quite an unplugged session, because James also plays a Fender Rhodes and uses a miniature MIDI keyboard for generating various samples. That said, the music is stripped back, with strings, horns and additional instrumentation removed (except for the odd sample).The repertoire is a mix of James’ compositions (including many of his best known numbers) and covers.
The album opens with ‘Angela,’ the theme song to the highly successful US sitcom series Taxi. On both the original and this version, James plays electric piano, with slow rippling chords flowing over Kilson’s measured cross-stick beats and Palazzolo’s rocky-steady pulse. It’s a sedate performance, but at around 2.31 it breaks out jazz-swing rhythm, with James’ funky keyboard riffs jostling with Palazzolo’s walking bass line. The tempo slows after a couple of minutes and the young bassist plays a fluent solo, before James returns to the theme. It’s a fine rearrangement, although I did miss Eric Gale’s lovely guitar solo from the original recording.
A cover of Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ takes us deep into MOR territory and one could imagine hearing this playing in the background of a hotel cocktail bar as punters quaff their piña coladas. Ditto the cover of the Petula Clark hit ‘Downtown.’ The playing on both numbers is exemplary, but it doesn’t exactly quicken the pulse. I wish James had replaced one of these numbers with an acoustic version of his song ‘Tappan Zee’ from the 1977 album BJ4, which would have been interesting to hear. The band’s cover of Earl Garner’s dreamy ballad ‘Misty’ is more successful, with James demonstrating a light, delicate touch, and playing with great sensitivity on piano, as Kilson’s brushes gently stroke snare and cymbal. It’s a fine version.
‘Topside,’ from the Espresso album, has a pleasing mid-tempo groove, with James’ playing a jazz-funk riff on electric piano, which is occasionally joined by swirling synth lines and sampled vocals. Kilson’s drumming is as a steady as a rock and at the coda, he unleashes a short solo .Marcus Miller’s ‘Maputo,’ from the 1986 Bob James/David Sanborn album Double Vision is played as a waltz, with the piano playing the melody rather than an alto sax. Once again, Palazzolo delivers another fluent solo, with a rich, deep tone. In fact, the bass line throughout the song is excellent and one wishes it was slightly higher in the mix. The song concludes with a neat series of stop-time passages.
The mid-tempo ‘Avalabop’ is one of the best tracks on the album, with a playful theme played on piano, coupled with a heavy backbeat and thundering bass riff. Half way through, the band breaks out into an energetic jazz-swing section. ‘Nautilus’ is one of James’ most sampled songs (at the time of writing, more than 300 times) and the band delivers a spirited version of the original, with a heavier backbeat. The song is reprised on ‘Submarine,’ with the band delivering a funkier beat, along with samples from the original recording.
The new arrangement of ‘Feel Like Making Love’ results in a freer version than the original. The original had drummer Idris Muhammad playing a rock-steady beat that was so tight, you could set your watch by it. Here, Kilson is given more freedom to play around with the beat. The tune neatly segues into ‘’Night Crawler’ with Palazzolo playing a neat bass riff and a solo. The album ends with two of James’ best-known works. Grover Washington Jr’s ‘Mr Magic’ is played in waltz-time and its opening piano/bass riff reminds me of Miles Davis’ ‘Footprints.’ ‘Westchester Lady’ has a great hook played on piano and the band delivers a vibrant version of the tune, with everyone playing with some passion and fire. One wishes there had been more moments like this on the album. If you like your jazz on the smooth side, you’ll enjoy this album, but if you prefer a harder edge to the music, then you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.