CM – Bob let me start my saying that I’m a huge fan of your music ‘One on One’ got me hooked on your music in the late ‘70’s.

BJ – Well, thank you for listening for all that time

CM - And ‘Restless’ is one of the things I’d grab if my house were on fire. I bought it as soon as it came out and I’ve played it fairly relentlessly ever since.

I wanted to start out by asking you who your early influences were when you started playing.

BJ  – I have always referred to three different people who I think it’s fair to call my biggest influences: Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Count Basie, all for different reasons.

I think probably Oscar Peterson was the one I discovered first back in high school and I use to listen relentlessly to his records and try to learn from them and one of things I discovered pretty quickly was that I’d never be able to have that kind of technique so that it didn’t really make too much sense to me to try to copy him because I knew I’d never be able to do it. And yet I learned a tremendous amount from his very powerful swing feeling.

Somewhat later on, I really became immersed in Bill Evans like probably almost every jazz pianist did. His voicings – even Oscar Peterson was influenced by Bill Evans in that way. So I learned even more and it was easy to fall into the pattern of trying to play like Bill Evans and maybe the only thing that saved me from that was when I discovered the Fender Rhodes maybe in the late 60’s/early 70’s and developed my own sound, it changed my touch and changed my approach to the piano. So that I could still admire and listen and love Bill Evans’ music but not feel like he was influencing me too much.

CM – I get you. When I’m planning an interview I listen to as much music as I can and I realised that classical themes run through your music, I’m thinking of tracks like ‘Night on Bald Mountain’. But if I come right up to date with the Fourplay ‘Energy’ CD, on the ‘Sebastian’ track, there’s a classical feel in there for me and I sometimes wonder did we almost not get Bob James the jazz musician?

BJ  – Well, I think I’m old enough now not to worry where my influences take me. I think I just let it happen, and I do listen a lot to classical music. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music and I don’t really think too much about whether or not it’s appropriate in my role as a jazz musician.

I just let it flow – I think jazz is constantly changing anyway. And the way I play jazz, I try to have it very spontaneous and very natural, very instinctive. So that it’s quite probable that when I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music it’ll start to come out in my playing, no matter what piece I play – whether it’s a funk thing or R&B or straight- ahead jazz or whatever. Those influences will come out. And one step further than that, on the Fourplay record, I was pushing us to find new sounds, a new approach, something fresh. We’re always thinking in terms of staying ahead of our audience. Not giving the same thing over and over again, but something different, something that will be a surprise for them to listen to. So that was the reason why I brought in a very simple Bach prelude. It was something that I’d been playing through and it seemed to have a really nice, simple structure.

And so I thought it would be a good idea for us to just improvise it in the studio. That’s what we did – we started off with not much of anything by way of an arrangement and it just evolved from this simple Bach prelude and it ended up being some kind of a combination of the traditional Bach influence and our own Fourplay setup.

CM – I’m embarrassed to admit Bob, it was only the other day that I was listening to ‘Energy’ yesterday and I looked at the song title and I thought ‘join the dots Chris, it’s Sebastian Bach they’re taking about here’.

BJ  – (laughs) well they did it with ‘Amadeus’ and it probably took a lot of people a while to figure out that that was Mozart.

CM – Well, you talk about keeping it fresh, I was listening to other things that have found their way onto this CD, such as the track ‘Look both Ways’. When I listened to that I felt like I was hearing something maybe more complex than I’ve heard on some Fourplay tracks and I wondered whether you were likely to record, either under your own name or with Fourplay, something like the ‘Straight Up’ album you made.

BJ  – This was another track that evolved quite a bit in the studio. The composition that I had prepared and I had brought to the guys was maybe a little more adventurous and then as soon as everybody got their hands on it, it changed a lot during the recording process and then there’s a place where it sort of explodes into a straight-ahead jazz feeling in the middle of it.

And that was one of those things that just happened: I was inspired by Harvey Mason’s drumming. Once again my attitude was ‘let’s try something new – let’s bring all of our influences into our collective music as Fourplay’. Harvey has a very deep and heavy history in more traditional, straight ahead jazz, even more than me, but both of us go back having played with many, many straight-ahead musicians and we want to incorporate all of that into our sound.

CM – And while you mentioned the musicians that you worked with in that vein Bob, I noticed that for some time you’d worked with Sarah Vaughan and I wondered what that experience was like for you…

BJ  – Sometimes I used to refer to it as a second college education.

CM – All right!

BJ – In so many ways it was one of the real highlights of my musical life. I worked with her for almost five years. I travelled all over the world with her, did some recording with her. She was not only a great singer but also a pretty good pianist. So if I wasn’t doing my job the way she wanted to hear it, she’d slide me right off the piano bench and show me how it needed to be done.

CM – Oh wow!

BJ  – It was like badge of acceptance that I’d made it to the level of working with her, and her saying that she liked what I did. That was very powerful, networking in the business and being accepted in the jazz community.

CM – Now another name that leapt out once I started to read about your early career was Quincy Jones. I’ve read the term ‘discovered’ – is that a good way to say it?

BJ  – It’s very appropriate. I was already a little bit down the line when I met Quincy but I was still in college. And the fact that he was on his way up and knew so many people in the business and he became interested in my music early on was a great good fortune to meet him. He got me started in a lot of ways and indirectly Quincy was responsible for me getting the job with Sarah Vaughan, for example.

He was definitely involved in getting me to meet Creed Taylor, who became very important and was on all my CTI records. He was the reason why I got the exposure that I did.

CM – You were producing at CTI for quite a number of years, Bob, weren’t you?

BJ  – It started in around 1971 I guess. Around 1972 I began to work with Grover Washington and I think I worked up until around 1977 or 78. That’s when I left to go with CBS.

CM – OK. CTI was the label that released the early records I was talking about before: the series starting with ‘One’.

BJ  – I did four projects for CTI, ‘One’, ‘Two’, ‘Three’ and ‘Four’. Then when I went to Columbia, the first record I made was called ‘Heads’.

CM – While we’re talking about record companies, I wanted to ask you about Tappan Zee Records. How did you set that company up and what was the vision?

BJ  – It was a little bit of an extension of what I had been doing at CTI. At CTI, Creed Taylor was pretty much the controlling force behind all the albums and he made most of the decisions, even though I was doing a lot of the music arranging, sometimes choosing musicians and everything. I was eager to do more of my own thing and I was lucky that Bruce Lundvall, who was already a legendary record company executive, was the head of Columbia at that time.

He was the one that signed me and he was interested in having me just have a sideline, a small custom label with Columbia so he let me sign my own artists and gave me pretty good artistic control.

CM – That’s fantastic! One of my prized possessions is an album by Mongo Santamaria that you released, called ‘Hot’.

BJ  – Oh yes, that was a great period. Meeting a lot of new people. It was fun working with him and his music shifted us into a new kind of style.

CM – I’m skipping back to the present day Bob and you mentioned the style of writing that you do. The way that you brought a Fourplay song into the studio and the guys all made a contribution. Is that a typical way that you write, bringing in a partly completed idea and then develop it in the studio?

BJ  – Yes, very much so. We of course, over twenty years working with this group, we talk a lot about concepts and about the direction that we’re going to take. And part of the aspect of Fourplay is allowing all four of our different personalities to come out and have it all be part of the sound.

So, as a composer, when I come in with something for that group the last thing I want to do is put any of those guys in handcuffs and just have them be obedient to a composition or to an arrangement. Actually, the composition is just a launching pad, basically, to get something started. And then, every time we do a rehearsal or a gig or whatever we’re talking about it and trying to make everybody comfortable so they can all make a contribution. That’s really the most fun part about the process actually.

CM – That must take a lot of planning Bob I think, because typically all four of you are working on different projects and touring for a lot of the time. Is this a real nightmare to plan?

BJ  – It’s very difficult. All four of us have different schedules and everybody’s busy so everybody being available at the same time is not likely unless we plan very carefully.

CM – I couldn’t help noticing one name in connection with this album and that’s Esperanza Spalding. What was it like to work with this rising star?

BJ  – It was too brief. I only got the chance to work with her the one day that we recorded her vocal for the song ‘Prelude for Lovers’. And she’s just an awesome, awesome talent. So fresh, her attitude was great. She was totally cooperative – couldn’t have asked for anything better. It made me feel like I want to work with her more.

It was a little bit of a fluke that we got her because she was on the same label, Heads Up. That’s where our project was going to be released so she was recommended to us by Dave Love. Since she’s also a bass player we thought maybe it could be weird with us already having a bass player in Nathan East, but he got on great with her. I think he even sees her and has collaborated with her a little bit recently.

I’m a big fan now and I follow everything she does. It’s just fantastic to see her career on the rise.

CM – I agree with that. I first heard her music because of some work she’d done on Stanley Clarke’s last CD, which was also on Heads Up. And I just thought it was fantastic.

BJ  – Yes she’s really great, so multi-talented. She composes, she’s a bass player in a very unusual style and an equally original style singer.

CM – I know that a couple of years ago, you got the chance to work with some young and very talented musicians in China Bob…

BJ  – Yes, that was a wonderful experience. I don’t even exactly remember how I drifted into this concept but there was a man in Japan who was talking about traditional Chinese instruments and one thing led to another and I found myself in Shanghai listening to this music and I was really falling in love with the way these young people were playing. In a very fresh and open kind of way.

It just led me to believe that maybe I could find some way of combining it with my piano style.

CM – And it works beautifully. I smiled when I reached the end of the CD and looked at the title ‘Angela with Purple Bamboo’ I wondered if it would be what I thought it was going to be…

BJ  – (laughs) Yes, I’ve got so much really wonderful feedback from people who have enjoyed that track. And again I have to give credit for the person who started me off on that venture for suggesting that I do a familiar song and reinterpret it in that hybrid Chinese style.

I guess I would probably have been inclined to do all new music but during the course of recording that and working with the Chinese musicians, they responded to it immediately.

To my big surprise – it was a shock – I realised that the main melody of that song was in the modal Chinese traditional scale. So for them to play it on their instruments was very natural and they related to it immediately, almost as if it was a traditional Chinese folk song. So that was big bonus and then they were the ones that suggested that we segue from my ‘Angela (Taxi)’ piece into the traditional Chinese song which is called ‘Purple Bamboo’.

And that’s the reason for that title, so in the middle of it they play almost their own arrangement of a Chinese folk song. It’s very well known over there and the arrangement became a hybrid version of all of it.

CM – That’s superb! Over the past few days I’ve been saying to people ‘oh, I’m going to interview Bob James’ and not everyone I know listens to the music I listen to, but everyone know the music from ‘Taxi’. It’s still something that’s internationally known and associated with you and I think that’s fantastic.

BJ  – Oh it’s amazingly great timing, good fortune for me. I’ll never forget the luck that I had. The way that happened originally was that an early album – the fourth CTI album – happened to be in the collection of one of the producers of that series and they were looking to find a kind of mood for the show.

And they had been listening, among other things, to my CTI recording. That’s why they contacted me. They called me to ask if I could do some music for their series that was in the same vein. That’s how the whole thing started.

At the time, I wasn’t really interested in pursuing anything career-wise in the way of writing music for television. I was very happy to work with CTI and to work on jazz recordings. As it turned out, it’s the only TV show that I ever did. I was so lucky that the show was as successful as it was and that my music got heard by people all over the world the way you’re describing.

CM – If I look back over your discography and I think about the collaborations that you’ve had with Earl Klugh and with David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum and your own daughter, I wonder if there are any other artists that you would like to have that kind of recoding project with.

BJ  – Of course. The list would be very long – I love working with people. One of the things that’s most exciting to me about working in the jazz field is that it really ties in with this concept of spontaneous music that happens. For me, working with a talented musician for the first time, we’re exploring territory that we haven’t been on before, we talk to each other musically – we get to know each other through playing. That’s a very exciting thing. Any time I listen to a recording by somebody that I haven’t worked with before I get that urge to communicate.

Right now, there’s a guy who I’ve known for a long time – almost since I first moved to New York and he and I are just about to do a project together. His name is Eddie Daniels. He is the greatest jazz clarinettist in the world. He is also a fantastic saxophone player. Many years ago he decided that he was going to focus on the clarinet and he is just an awesome player who combines the same kind of things I do, which is classical and jazz.

And he’s a great classical player also – he’s actually quite intimidating to play with because his technique is so unbelievably great. I’ll be looking forward to that experience, both in live performance and in the studio. We’re playing an engagement in New York City, at the Iridium, at the end of October. We’re going to just see how it goes and hope it expands itself into something.

CM – That’s fantastic. I can see how that would work well because you described earlier the way that you set out to play with a light, natural touch on the piano and I detect that same kind of touch in his music.

BJ  – Definitely. I know that I will be calling upon all of my ammunition in terms of touch and sensitivity in order to be supportive and collaborate with Eddie. It’ll be a big challenge and I’m definitely looking forward to it.

CM – Bob, is there anything in the pipeline that didn’t occur to me that you’d like to tell me about?

BJ  – Well there’s only one other project that I’m active with right now. I’ve been friends with a great jazz guitarist who comes from Korea. As a result of travelling a lot to the Far East, I’ve met a lot of very interesting people there and so the ‘Angels of Shanghai’ project was not the only one that has caught my interest from Asia.

This guy’s name is Jack Lee. I played with him quite often, mostly over in Korea. I’ve always wanted to do a project with him, so we are about three-quarters of the way finished with a new CD. It’s basically Jack Lee and Bob James. It’s going to be released first in Asia. The name of the CD is ‘Botero’, based upon the great Spanish painter. That’s the reason for that title. I’m excited about it – he’s a very good player too, he’s very sensitive and allows me to call upon all of my musical ability as composer, arranger and pianist.

So I’m hoping that that recording will be released in Europe and the US as well.

CM – I know that you have some live dates coming up in Europe between now and the end of this year. I think one of them is even Istanbul, which is a destination I guess not too many American artists get to. So I want to wish you every success with the touring, but also with the most recent Fourplay album and with the upcoming projects that you’ve kindly told me about today, Bob.

BJ  – Thank you much Chris. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. I had hoped that maybe Great Britain was going to be a part of this tour that I’m doing. It’s turned out to be a fairly short tour and we weren’t able to schedule anything, London or whatever. But hopefully we will be making up for it soon. I’ve got some possibilities in the works and I’d love to come back…

CM – Well, I know that you had a very warm reception when you played in Manchester and I’ve seen you play with Dave McMurray and at the Bridgewater Hall with Fourplay. I know that there’s a very warm feeling for your music and you’re always going to get an enthusiastic reception when you come here.

BJ  – I sure hope I can come to Manchester. I really do Chris – and we’ll get together if I do.

CM – For me Bob this has been an absolute pleasure. I can’t believe I’m talking to someone who’s been a hero of mine for thirty years. I really appreciate you taking the time out – I know you’re just fresh back from vacation. Mine starts tomorrow…

BJ  – Have a great vacation!

CM – I hope that we will speak soon.

BJ  – Thanks Chris, see you!