TSJR’s Featured Smooth Jazz Artist

A profile of our selected smooth jazz artist of the month

Because we appreciate the talents and hard work of all of the many artists in our beloved smooth jazz genre, TSJR has made it a standard practice to highlight and honor one artist each month who has established himself or herself as an integral part of the smooth/contemporary jazz “engine.”

This month, we honor:

Bob James — The Master of Musical Excellence Acing the Test of Time

The career of Bob James is (to say the very least) long, varied, and continues to evolve at every turn. From his first days in Marshall, Missouri, the music of Bob James has captivated audiences throughout the world.

Discovered by Quincy Jones at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival in 1963, James recorded his first solo album, Bold Conceptions, that year for Mercury Records. It was here that the Bob James Trio first emerged (be sure to check out the reincarnated group, with Michael Palazzolo and Billy Kilson joining James, and its latest release Espresso). Countless albums and innumerable awards would follow through numerous decades.

James honed his skills working with Creed Taylor (creator of the CTI record label) working on albums for artists like Hank Crawford, Grover Washington, Jr, among others. While with CTI, James also found great popular success overseeing significant hits for Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Maynard Ferguson, and Kenny Loggins.

In 1974, James recorded his album, One, which launched a lifelong career of recording and performing live. After three more albums, James began his own label, Tappan Zee Records. This allowed James to spend more time in the studio, focusing on his own creative works. It was during this time that he recorded his own gold seller, Touchdown, which included his composition, “Angela,” the instrumental theme from the sitcom Taxi, and possibly James’ best know work. James composed all the original music used in that television series for its entire run. One On One, the first in three collaborations with Earl Klugh, was awarded a Grammy in 1980 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, and has sold over a million copies. During this time, James set the standard for the smooth jazz sound in the late 1970s.

In 1985, James moved to Warner Bros Records, and kicked things off with Double Vision, a collaboration with David Sanborn, and produced by Tommy LiPuma. Double Vision was another Grammy winner, selling over a million albums.

While recording his album, Grand Piano Canyon, in 1990, James reunited with longtime friend, drummer Harvey Mason, Jr. It would also be the first time James would work with guitarist Lee Ritenour, and bassist Nathan East. This would be the start of something beautiful, as these early sessions ignited a spark that would become the now renowned musical phenom known as Fourplay.

Fourplay’s first album was recorded and released in 1991. The group recorded three albums before guitarist Lee Ritenour would leave in 1998. Guitarist Larry Carlton took over from there. This version of Fourplay continued the group’s huge success for seven more albums.

After 12 years, Carlton decided to pursue a solo career, and the band brought in the now-deceased guitarist extraordinaire Chuck Loeb in 2010. Our most recent information is that, since Loeb’s death, Ritenour has (temporarily?) returned to fill that void.

A personal and professional highlight was the collaboration with his daughter, Hilary, on their 1995 Flesh & Blood album which toured 15 U.S. cities.

James continued collaborating on separate projects with Earl Klugh, (Cool) and Kirk Whalum (Joined At the Hip). Both albums were nominated for Grammys. His solo career continued throughout the 90s, culminating with Joy Ride in 1999, and another Grammy nomination.

In 2001, Dancing On the Water, was released, once again showcasing James’ creative versatility. The album includes performances with Keiko Matsui, Joe Sample, Dave Holland, and Chuck Loeb.

Fourplay released Heartfelt in 2002 and spent much of the year touring across the globe. That same year, James released Morning, Noon, & Night, whose title track went to #1 in Contemporary Jazz Radio.

While appearing at New York’s Blue Note, in February of 2003, James went into the Hit Factory with Billy Kilson, James Genus, and Ken Freeman on the board. The result was Take It From the Top, a tribute to pianists who inspired James; Ahmad Jamal, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Oscar Peterson, among others.

The very next year, James, with the rest of Fourplay, released Journey. The group toured most of the year, culminating with a trip to South Africa in November of 2005 and a final tour stop in Bangkok, Thailand in December. This event featured the world premiere live performance of James’ ‘The Angels of Shanghai.’ This project encompased several months in the Far East collaborating with students from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, who played ancient Chinese instruments, as well as James Genus, Nathan East, and Harvey Mason. This project finally toured the U.S. in 2007, and culminated with a performance later in the year at the prestigious Seongnam Art Center in Seoul, Korea, where James was also invited to have a solo exhibit of his art in conjunction with the performance.

James stayed busy in 2006, releasing Urban Flamingo in February, and on April 7, was awarded the George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards. Summer saw the release of Fourplay’s tenth record, appropriately called X. This tour literally took James around the world again with stops in Spain, London, California, Hong Kong, Japan, Kuala Lumpur, and Indonesia.

In 2008, James released a Christmas album with Hilary James, and another Fourplay album Energy. Energy featured Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, and another Grammy nomination with the first single, “Fortune Teller”. The year ended on a high note with James and close friend, the Tony award winning Broadway director Jack O’Brien, receiving the International Achievement Award by the state of Michigan.

The prolific and creative pianist has maintained a commitment to sophisticated production and arrangements while stretching out in different and new directions.

James’ illustrious and prolific career is such that this article could easily become an encyclopedia of musical excellence. Suffice it to say that this musical genius is unparalleled in his depth of experience and knowledge of this art form. Pick up any of his works, and you’re instantly transported to a vibrant, vivid world of exhilarating musical strokes and caresses. — Ronald Jackson

For a look at Bob James’ extensive discography — individually and with Fourplay, click here and here.