Pianist, composer, arranger, producer Bob James is a musician of enormous talent whose credits include Ron Carter, Hank Crawford, Eric Gale, Johnny Hammond, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington, Jr., Earl Klugh and Fourplay. He has recorded over 15 albums of his own and 4 with ‘Fourplay’ (also comprising Larry Carlton, Nathan East and Harvey Mason).
Notable awards include the 1996 Soul Train Awards "Jazz Album Of The Year", ‘Cashbox’ “Jazz Artist Of The Year” and “Jazz Producer of the Decade”, Jazziz magazine's “#1 Best Acoustic Pianist”, “#1 Best Jazz Composer”, “#2 Best Jazz Producer”, “#2 Best Electronic Keyboardist” and “#3 Best Overall Jazz Musician”. Sam McNally managed to interview Bob during his first Australian tour in November 2001.

SM: A great pleasure and an honour to meet you, it’s wonderful to see you here in Sydney.. and we met briefly in Tokyo in January!

I mentioned to you there that you were one of only a handful of powerful, formative influences on my piano playing style in the 70’s. Funny story: on January 21, I was crossing an intersection in Shinjuku, Tokyo and I noticed a guy who looked “quite like Bob James”. I so nearly said “you wouldn’t be Bob James would you?” but I backed off thinking “don’t be stupid, Bob James ain’t gonna be walking around Shinjuku”. Next day I spotted the same guy in the foyer of the Hilton, I enquired, it was you, we had a nice chat.

A very long and rich career, Bob. Just for the record, when did you begin and doing what?

BJ: I started piano lessons at the ripe old age of 4 !

SM: You are a Pianist/keyboard-player who has appeared on more albums than you'd be able to remember. What are some of the more special recordings that come to mind?

BJ: Always a hard question to answer! A musician friend once commented that "all my recordings are my little babies and I love them all equally". I guess I have a similar feeling. I'd feel bad if I excluded any....however, so as not to cop out, I'll mention "Flesh & Blood", the album with my daughter. Definitely a highlight for me! And, since it's the freshest in my mind, "Dancing on the Water" fulfilled a long desire to strip away the production and just concentrate on playing the piano.

SM: Did you begin to write, to compose, early on in your career? At any point did composing become more important than playing with other artists, for you?

BJ: I started experimenting with composing a little while in high school, but didn't really take it up in earnest until majoring in Composition at the music school of the University of Michigan. I've always tried to keep a balance between writing and performing. One seems to feed off the other.

SM: How about the writing process for you? Is there a 'typical' way in which you might begin to write something, a usual way you may develop and arrange a new piece of music?

BJ: The usual circumstance which gets me over the dilemma of staring at the blank page is a deadline for delivering something to a project. Even though I was encouraged during my student years to compose away from the piano, I still find it helpful to improvise at the piano to generate ideas.

SM: It's understood that 'getting known', getting one's work noticed in the market-place, is not easy. Any simple comment apart from "persistence times three" - that might inspire new artists to pursue their dream?

BJ: I've always felt it was most important to "enjoy the process". If your passion for what you do is independent of whether or not you 'get known', then you are free from many of the disappointments that can grow out of commercial failures, which are an inevitable part of the business side. If you love what you do, and pursue it with all of your energy, there's the best chance that it will find a natural level of success.

SM: Apart from your own albums and shows, and 'Fourplay'- the "supergroup" you head up with Larry Carlton, Nathan East and Harvey Mason - what work has predominantly filled out the last couple of years for you?

BJ: I had a wonderful experience early this year when Keiko Matsui and I toured as a four-hand piano team, performing our own compositions with only the concert grand piano on the stage. It was a big challenge to merge our styles into one instrument and to strip away the orchestrations that are so much a part of our separate repertoires.

The unique discipline of giving up half of the piano to the partner necessitated some interesting compromises for both of us technically, but led to the creation of music that was very different from anything either of us had ever done. We hope to continue this on-going project next year, hopefully by completing a CD devoted exclusively to these four-hand duets.

SM: What musical direction are your recent albums taking you in, compared to your early work and the many albums you've done since the 70's? Any specific 'sound' or new influences?

BJ: Although I always try to start each project with openness to new directions, habits inevitably creep in; so I guess the end result is a combination of trying to keep the best of the past while still exploring new and uncharted territory.

SM: What is the principal responsibility of a studio musician when
contributing to a recording session, do you think?

BJ: As a sideman, it's vital to enter into the spirit of what the leader and producer are trying to accomplish, even if it means shifting away from what you'd instinctively do on your own. Some musicians have a difficult time with that, but I've always enjoyed that challenge. In many ways I still like being an accompanist better than always being "out front". Also, the musicians I admire the most, don't hold back....in other words they put 100% energy into every project. Even if you don't feel you can do that, you probably shouldn't have taken the gig!

As a leader, I try to make sure I communicate what I'm trying to achieve, and to give plenty of opportunity for the other musicians to express their individual strengths.

SM: The digital recording 'culture', whereby one can cut and paste, fix errors, shift keys and tuning, etc etc. (in both MIDI and Pro-Tools etc.), may influence a reduction in musician quality. For example, in stead of "going for the killer take", the 'magic' performance, it's acceptable, and possible now, to compile multiple takes 'ad hoc' and let the engineer sort out the best stuff. The arbitration of 'best performance' is moving...it's a different experience in the studio now. Your thoughts?

BJ: To me, the key word in that complicated question is 'tools'. To me, it's never been about the tools, but what one does with them! Technology is constantly changing and the newest innovations are more of a threat to those who believe that there is one 'pure' way to make music. I would use as an example the great classical pianist Glenn Gould, who loved the recording process, and was more than capable of playing the 'perfect take' time after time, but was challenged and excited to go many steps further and take advantage of every bit of technology available to him in order to end up with a complete artistic statement.

I believe it would be inaccurate to describe the sophisticated tools we have available to us only as means to make our work 'easier', but more that they provide the opportunity to take the art to another level.

SM: The Fender Rhodes Piano. Your phrasing on the Rhodes was incredibly articulate and "lyrical". How do you feel about the instrument now? Do you still play the Rhodes? Do you own one?

BJ: I owe a lot to the unique sound of the Fender Rhodes, and it played a big part in the change of sound in the contemporary jazz of the 70's when keyboard players were influenced by what was happening in the pop & rock fields. It's fascinating to see young producers seek out this instrument to achieve a 'retro' sound, and I often get called to play on sessions where this is the instrument of choice. I don't currently own one, and no longer get much satisfaction from playing one because of the 'clunky' action. But it was that same clunkiness which automatically put a funky aspect in my phrasing that intrigued back in that era.

Many pianists were frustrated because you couldn't really play that instrument with the same technique that you'd use on a Grand. Using too much dynamic range resulted in a kind of 'over-blowing' distortion that I didn't like, particularly in the upper register. Consequently I always tried to play it with a light touch and let the clunk provide the guts.

SM: I met Chick Corea in Oz in January 2000 and he was almost disparaging about electric instruments, which I found a bit odd for a guy who developed such a musical personality on the Rhodes and lead synths for such a long time. Your feelings?

BJ: I'm sure he's feeling the same frustration all of us do....the electric instruments intrigued us because of the fresh different sound, but if you trained as a conventional pianist, inevitably you realize when you return to it, how much more dynamic range there is, along with all the other subleties...the wood, the strings, etc etc. I had a similar conversation with Joe Sample, who expressed the same sentiment.

For me, there's no need to choose one or the other. I still like having the option of switching from one sound to another for an 'orchestration' change. I also often use the Yamaha Disklavier or MidiGrand in combination with synths, which gives me the feel, touch and sound of the conventional piano, but also the luxury of adding other tonal colors.

SM: I said to Harvey Mason when I met him, also in Tokyo, "what's the difference between having Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton in your band? Is it 'apples and oranges'?" He said "yep that's it, exactly!". What can you comment about the difference between these two guitar giants, what it's like having one or the other in a band?

BJ: We regretted that Lee chose to leave the group, but the 'ill wind' blew me the good fortune of collaborating for the first time with Larry who I'd only known from his recordings. Lee & I had many similarities in production techniques and it was great to put a new tune together with him, because we would trade off the responsibilities of orchestral colors, and the resulting sound was something larger than a quartet. For those who were aware that multi-layering, and overdubbing was so much a part of studio technique, it came as a big surprise that most of our recordings were done "live" as a quartet, with minimum overdubbing.

Larry's blues style provided a unique and different challenge, and we've encouraged him to just be himself, even though there was a history and a sound associated with the group before he joined. I think our audiences have enjoyed watching the new sound of the group develop as Larry has made his imprint.

SM: Getting 'Fourplay' together must be some exercise, with the schedules you four heavyweights would have; how does that work, how do you ensure time is available for the group? And, what sort of dynamic exists creatively where you have four major artists, all leaders, in a group situation? Is the "surrender" to the group easy?

BJ: Scheduling is our most difficult problem. Last year we were on hiatus because Nathan had committed to a world tour with Eric Clapton. We've just signed a new contract with BMG and will go into the studio in Feb. 2002 for our first album with the new company. From the beginning our goal was to have this group be totally democratic, with no leader. Speaking for myself I relish the opportunity to only have the responsibility for the piano chair. Of course it's a major luxury to have those three incredibly talented guys taking 75% of the reins. We usually nominate whichever composer whose tune we're working on to be the designated leader during that rehearsal or recording. Since we're all evenly represented as writers it spreads the control around and keeps things from getting chaotic.

SM: The 70's saw the "Jazz Fusion" explosion, with your work, Weather Report, Chick Corea, Herbie, Dave Grusin and so many other great artists. Were those the "golden days" of Jazz Fusion, Jazz generally? Is the music every bit as dynamic now?

How about the influence of business, e.g., major label decision-making on the music, now compared to in the 70's?

BJ: The 70's era certainly was a very exciting creative time for me. As this new genre has distilled into what has become known (regrettably) as "Smooth Jazz", I think the music has become more predictable. When this happens, there is the likelihood that a new direction will develop, and I'm sure the younger generation will take care of that. One thing is certain, the artists need to control the creative decision-making if any genre is to remain healthy. Once business takes over then the inevitable pressure forces compromises on the music. Never a good situation!

SM: Did you enjoy working with Joe Sample recently? Joe is also one of my very favorite players since the 70's. There must be such a feeling of mutual respect when artists like you two, hook up to do something.

BJ: It was great performing alongside Joe and a big challenge to come up with a couple of pieces that would highlight his style, but also challenge him to go to a little bit different place. He's definitely one of my favorites, both as a pianist and composer. It's unusual for two pianists to work together, so I jumped at the opportunity to invite both Joe & Keiko to duet with me on my "Dancing on the Water" project.

SM: You were based in New York were you not? Do you still live in NY? In what way was the "NY scene" different to what was going on in LA back then?

BJ: I've just moved from my long-time residence in Westchester County, just outside New York City, and now have a primary residence in Traverse City, Michigan.....a long way from the big city!!

I think the differences between NYC & LA are much less now than they were when I first chose the east coast to try to carve out a career. L.A. seemed to be defined by the movie industry, and NY was more diverse. Today there's so much travel between the two coasts and most musicians have the opportunity to collaborate in both directions, so I really don't think there's as much of a stylistic difference in the approaches.

SM: I know you play Japan regularly. Do you find the level of appreciation there is very high? What sort of differences do you notice from American audiences for instance? Is the Japanese appreciation at all an 'academic' sort of response? (their 'emotional processing' being quite different to Westerners/Anglo-Saxons!)

BJ: I feel very fortunate to have cultivated many close friendships in Japan and it’s always a highlight to go there on tour. Yes, there is a big difference in our cultures, but that's the best part about it to me. The exchange of ideas. Seeing how different aspects of the music are appreciated. I don't think it's an 'academic' thing at all, although there are the inevitable 'serioso' listeners in both cultures. Certainly the Japanese fans are very thorough in their appreciation for detail. It keeps us on our toes! I hope I never become complacent about how lucky I am to have the opportunity to communicate through the universal language music in all parts of the world....Australia being my newest adventure!

SM: Were you pleased with the responses from your Australian audiences? The (Contemporary) Jazz audience base here is very small, but people come out of the wood-work when something special is on! Dave Weckl, for instance, called his band's Aussie audiences their favorite!

BJ: I was very happily surprised to learn that I had so many fans. None of us were sure when we scheduled these performances what the outcome would be. Not only were the fans very responsive, but they seemed to be familiar with a lot of my recordings. Couldn't ask for anything more! I was given great support by the fantastic Aussie rhythm section of Philip Scorgie & Gordon Rytmeister. This seemed a risk when we first considered the idea, but those guys put my anxieties to rest immediately at the first rehearsal. They can really play!!

And they lit a fire under me every night. I hope to have the opportunity to work with them again and to learn more about the jazz scene in OZ.

SM:Thanks kindly, Bob.

© Sam McNally