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Happy birthday, Bob JamesPosted Monday, January 30, 2012, at 10:23 AM
Creative people generally have an unsettled relationship with labels. They often publicly renounce them while gathering the commercial benefits they afford. If a label sticks, it can seem like a set of iron bars, hard and unyielding expectations that critics and fans alike use to force artists to produce of more-of-the-same (but get too "samey" and attention evaporates mighty quick!). If a label sticks, it also provides. There will be a core group of patrons who adore the type and will pay attention and pay for its continuation.
There are always a few artists who successfully defy labels, exploring new directions as they see fit.
Bob James is one.
When people hear his name, they often think immediately of the music he made in the 1970s and 1980s the Grammy-winning albums, "One on One" with Earl Klugh and "Double Vision" with David Sanborn, or the big sellers like gold-selling "Touchdown," which included "Angela," the theme to TV's "Taxi." Great stuff, but it doesn't actually represent the variety of music Mr. James has produced over his half-century career.
There's the mainstream jazz work of his trio recordings (most recently, "Straight Up" and "Take it From the Top") or his early work as music director and pianist for Sarah Vaughn (see this 1965 video). There's the eclectic virtuosity of Fourplay, often called the first and longest running jazz supergroup. There's his classical and classic-influenced piano work.
Since October 2010, he's released two recordings that demonstrate this range. First, there was the popular Fourplay release, "Let's Touch the Sky," is a recording full of accessible, hummable jazzy, R&B-flavored hooks. It also includes a jazz piano tribute to one of James' friends and heroes, the late Hank Jones ("labeled" a bebop master, but he, too, resisted the shackles of the term).
Then in September 2011, he released "Altair & Vega" with Keiko Matsui. The four-hand technique produces a rich, beautiful sound, and the album has moments of both melodic and powerful. It has elements of jazz approaches, but the style is more classical than jazz.
"The depth that any musician can get from a classical background forms the basis for a much broader understanding of music that can be applied to any stylistic direction you end up wanting to go in," he said in a recent interview with Mike Ragogna.
That's why a label like "smooth jazz" seems almost unfair applied to James' work. His approach throughout his career has been to respect tradition but use it as a foundation for exploration.
Here's what he had to say about "smooth jazz" in a 1998 interview:
"There's a stigma attached to this music that it's too easy, too safe, too conservative. In my experience, any time something like that happens, there is a rebellion against it. I think and hope that the music that will grow out of this contemporary jazz faith will be adventurous and risky and will not necessarily fit on the 'Smooth Jazz' category, and will find an audience because it is adventurous."
James tried his hand at, and became associated with smooth jazz when it was the new direction, the adventure.
"I was interested in it too because I was becoming frustrated and even bored with the way that straight ahead jazz was going because a lot of it was sounding the same to me, and a lot of artists were trying to recreate the bebop era. To me, it had been done so well with so much freshness and excitement in the era that the music was created in that it was time to do something else," he told Ragogna. "To me, because jazz was an improvised music, it had to be ever changing. There was no perfect or correct way to play jazz I still feel that way. It must be always changing, otherwise it goes into the museum."
An artist who has learned from history but consistently has struck out in new directions should either wear multiple labels or none. I'd make one exception: jazz. It's OK to say James is a jazz artist because jazz itself is so varied and adventurous by nature. Its character as a form of music and cultural force is found in improvisation and exploration.
Happy birthday, Bob James, jazz pianist & musical adventurer.
Note: Bob James will appear in Marshall as a special guest during the second annual Bob James Jazz Festival concert May 19, 2012, at Bueker Middle School. For more information about the festival, visit www.bobjamesjazzfest.org.
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Eric Crump is the editor of The Marshall Democrat-News. He's listening to Bob James right now.
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