James, Bob (actually, Robert)
James, Bob (actually, Robert)
James, Bob (actually, Robert), the de facto inventor of pop-jazz and one of its most innovative purveyors; b. Marshal, Mo., Dec. 25, 1939. Robert James started playing piano at four years old. His early teachers discovered he had perfect pitch. By the time he was eight, he was earning extra money by playing for tap dance classes. In his high school band he played trumpet and percussion, but he competed at state fairs on the piano, earning his share of blue ribbons. He also played with local dance bands. He studied music at the Univ. of Mich., with a term at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and eventually earned his master’s degree in music composition. While in school, he wrote the music for two plays, winning the BMI Award for Best Collegiate Musical for one of them. He also put together a jazz trio, which swept the Notre Dame Jazz Festival, catching the eye of Quincy Jones. He recorded his debut, Bold Conceptions, with that trio for Mercury in 1962.
James moved to N.Y. in 1964, where he began doing studio work and jingles as well as performing with his trio. The group recorded Explosion, a decidedly ambitious and experimental album for ESP in 1965, using early synthesizers and unusual tape techniques. He wrote arrangements and played piano for sessions and live performances, serving as Sarah Vaughan’s music director for four years from 1965-68. In 1973, he joined CTI records as an arranger, writing charts and playing keyboards on scads of the label’s sessions for artists ranging from Ron Carter and Hank Crawford to Eric Gale and Grover Washington. He also recorded four albums of his own, the last of which, Bob James 4, went to #38 on the pop charts. These albums relied more on electric piano than acoustic, setting a tone for the next decade of his career and for the direction of “palatable” pop jazz. Three years later, he became director of progressive A&R at CBS, working with Paul Simon and Neil Diamond, among others. Settling in suburban Westchester, he formed his own label in 1977, Tappan Zee, after the bridge that spanned the Hudson River not far from his home. In addition to his own recordings, he signed artists including jazz virtuoso JoAnne Brackeen, Latin percussion all-star Mongo Santamaria, and funk pianist Richard Tee.
In 1979, James again reached the pop album charts with his seventh solo album, Touchdown, largely thanks to the song “Angela” which was the theme song to the hit TV show Taxi. The album went gold. Columbia president Bruce Lundvall suggested performing with guitarist Earl Klugh. The result was the 1979 album One on One, which won them a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, went gold and reached #23 on the charts. He would collaborate with Klugh again a couple of years later on Two of a Kind, and again on Cool in 1993. On a whim, James recorded works of the impressionist composer Jean Phillipe Rameau, initially just as something to give to friends. The tapes came into the hands of CBS Masterworks (their classical label), who pleaded to release it. He followed these with a program of Scarlatti in 1988 and a program of Bach a year later.
In 1986 he collaborated with saxophonist David Sanborn. This duo project resulted in his second Grammy, for Best Jazz Fusion Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. By 1991, he was beginning to break out again, this time working on the solo acoustic Grand Piano Canyon.Conversely, he also set to work with the lite jazz super group Fourplay with Harvey Mason, Lee Ritenour (later replaced by Larry Carlton) and Nathan East. The album topped Billboard’s jazz charts for 34 weeks and went gold. Their 1993 release, Between the Sheets, followed suit. Their 1995 album Elixir won Jazz Album of the Year at the Soul Train awards.
James featured his daughter Hilary on one track of his 1994 Restless album. The next year, they decided to do a project together. They collaborated a year later on the album Flesh and Blood, which was followed by a father- daughter tour. Following that, he went back to his roots on Straight Up, an acoustic trio date with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. Then he went back for a fusion project with saxophonist Kirk Whalum. Ever the musical chimera, James also has spent time as VP of A&R in the jazz division at Warner Bros. Into his 60s, he continues to create a lighter than air music for piano that falls just to the jazz side of pop.
Bold Conceptions (1962); Explosions (1965); One (1974); Two (1975); Three (1976); BJ 4 (1977); Heads (1977); Touchdown (1978); Genie (1978); One on One (1979); Lucky Seven (1980); H (1980); Sign of the Times (1981); All Around the Town (live; 1981); Flashback Follow Bob James (1981); Two of a Kind (1981); Hands Down (1982); The Foxie (1983); 11 (1984); Rameau (1984); Double Vision (1986); Obsession (1986); Ivory Coast (1988); Scarlatti Dialogues (1988); S. Bach (1989); Grand Piano Canyon (1990); Cool (1992); Restless (1994); Hapgood (1994); The Swan (1995); Flesh and Blood (1995); Straight Up (1996); Joined at the Hip (1996); Playin’ Hooky (1997); Joy Ride (1999). fourplay:Fourplay (1991); Between the Sheets (1993); Elixir (1995); 4 (1998).