“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Bob James
Smitty: After 40 years of making great music, my next guest still remains in his heyday. How many musicians do you know that could say that? He was my first introduction to jazz music and he’s still one of my favorite musicians. We know him such brilliant projects such as Touchdown, Bob James Three, Four, Playing Hooky, Grand Canyon Piano…if I keep talking I’ll be out of breath. I honestly think that this guy, if you could analyze his DNA, most likely you’d find some gold and platinum. Please give a standing ovation for my next guest, the incomparable Mr. Bob James. Bob, how ya doin’?
Bob James (BJ): I’m great, Smitty, and thank you very much for that flattering introduction. It’s a bittersweet feeling to know that I’ve had so many years at doing this, but in some ways it does remind you of your age.
Smitty: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think we both dated ourselves there. But what a wonderful ride it’s been, you know?
BJ: Oh, it really has been. I feel so lucky to be part of this field and to me it’s great to see jazz continuing to thrive and grow and change into so many different permutations. It’s a tribute to the generic strength that it’s had from the very beginning. It’s over a hundred years of, you know, great music and to just be a little bit of a part of that is a great feeling.
Smitty: Yes indeed, my friend. Now, I go back to….my first introduction to your music was Bob James Three and then, of course, I went out and got the whole collection at that point, and it has just been a beautiful ride, and one thing that I appreciate so much is the consistency of your music. I have never heard anyone say anything about a bad record when they talk about Bob James, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. It speaks volumes for the consistency of what’s in your heart in terms of making great music.
BJ: Well, that’s very nice of you and that’s the kind of compliment that I value very highly because I have been very lucky to be in a position most of the time to have pretty much artistic control over my projects. A lot of artists suffer from sometimes the economics of this business and having record companies tell them what to do and what they can do and what they can’t do, and that always compromises the music, in my opinion. In my case, I can’t really….certainly I can’t blame anybody else for whatever lack of merits that there would be. It’s on my shoulders and I have had wonderful opportunities to make music my own way.
Smitty: Yes indeed, and as fans, we’re very fortunate and so glad that you have been in that wonderful position because over the years, I just can’t say enough about the wonderful music that has come from those keys and from the arrangements that you’ve created. It’s just a magnificent ride of great music. What a wonderful book of music over the past 40 years. I am somewhat curious….with your first project, do you ever revert back to those first arrangements and say “Hey, I wanna do something like I did back then”? Did you ever do that in any of your projects along the way?
BJ: It’s hard to avoid thinking along those lines sometimes because when I think back on trying to figure out the reasons why I’ve had the opportunities that I’ve had, you sort of theorize what made this work or what made some pieces work better than others? But I’ve always felt that it’s real dangerous to theorize too much and even though the future is an unknown thing and when you start into a new blank project, it’s a bit scary sometimes, I think that it’s important to look ahead and to try to keep creating something new.
Smitty: Yes! Now, you attended the University of Michigan?
BJ: Yes, I was there as a student for five years back in the late fifties, early sixties.
Smitty: Yeah. Do you get back there as much to visit and perhaps collaborate and do some master classes, any of that kind of thing?
BJ: I haven’t done a lot. Most of my trips back there took place when my daughter was also in school at the University of Michigan, but since she graduated, I haven’t had too many opportunities to go back there and, frankly, my schedule is always so busy that I haven’t done that much in terms of teaching. It’s occasionally I get that opportunity. Just last week I was in Singapore, actually, and did a sort of master class Q&A session that made me realize how out of practice I am about putting some of the stuff that I do into words. So much of the time I’m working with the level of professionalism where you don’t really have to say anything; you just play and make the music and let it speak for itself. And when I’m standing in front of a room full of young people, students, sometimes I get a little tongue tied.
Smitty: [Laughs.] Oh, but that’s a beautiful feeling to have that opportunity, though, it’s gotta be.
BJ: It is, and you do want to try to pass along to the next generation the benefit of whatever experience you’ve had and I’m always appreciative that anybody would care enough to want to ask me questions about what I do, and certainly I would want to try to communicate the best that I can. My music has never been really anything that was organized in any kind of a methodic way. I think that’s one of the reasons why I have trouble translating it into an educational thing. I know if I did more that I’d have to really work on developing that sort of methodology and that I see some other people that are involved in education do so well.
Smitty: I must say that before I listened to your music, I had never heard of the Fender Rhodes, and my first thought was “What is this instrument?” It was like this funky piano, you know? Talk about your first recollection with the Rhodes and what that did for you in terms of creating great music.
BJ: Well, I think I was very lucky in the timing. I became pretty much associated with that sound because my first records for the CTI label….One, Two, Three and Four….all heavily were created using the Fender Rhodes, which was quite popular at the time, and I think we were going through this transition with jazz being influenced by what was going on in rock and in other areas of pop music, and just by virtue of wanting to incorporate some new sounds and more electronic orchestration, if you will, it was something that was kinda thrust upon us, and the first times that I used the Fender Rhodes on studio dates when I was just being hired as a sideman, it was something that was….I won’t say it was forced on me, but it was not totally my decision. It was more just what was going on at the time. And because of the fact that I was starting to make my solo records and ended up using that sound on a lot of the melodies, I just became associated with it. I noticed at the time that a lot of pianists had problems adjusting to the touch, which if you played with the same kind of touch that you would do on a normal acoustic grand piano, it just didn’t work. That was too much and kinda would, at least to me, create a kind of a distorted almost kind of sound, so I tried to develop a very different touch when I played the Fender Rhodes from what I used on the grand piano.
Smitty: It’s such a unique sound even when I hear it today. There’s just something about the Rhodes. I just love that instrument.
BJ: It’s magical and it’s undergoing a resurrection in many ways now. I get called upon quite often to play that instrument. I’ve changed my sound a lot in recent years and have been using a different form of a combination of some electric piano sounds that are similar to the Rhodes but not the same and, nevertheless, I would definitely say that my favorite continues to be the purity of the grand piano.
BJ: If I had only one instrument to use, I would certainly opt for that.
Smitty: Wow. What do you enjoy most about the grand piano?
BJ: It just has such a complete….well, first of all, it has the history. For keyboard players it is the instrument upon which all keyboards’ sounds are based, and there’s a dynamic range about the best of the grand pianos where the wood in the instrument, the strings, the vibration, there are so many subtle aspects of it that just make it the king of keyboard instruments, at least in my opinion. All electronic instruments in one way or another are, by their nature, electronic and the sound has to come out of speakers and there’s a more limited character, appropriate for some music and not for others.
Smitty: Yeah. Now, did you start playing piano at a very early age?
BJ: Yeah, I started when I was four.
Smitty: Did you play hooky from piano lessons back then? [Both laughing.]
BJ: I definitely did. It wasn’t totally accidental that I came up with that title for one of my records.
Smitty: I just had to play on words there a little.
BJ: I think that may have been what gradually started to get me to gravitate toward jazz because it always seemed to be that it had so much more freedom and the improvising part of it was very different from the discipline of practicing long hours of classical music.
Smitty: Yeah. You’ve just returned from Singapore and you were talking to some students and giving them some jazz education and music education. What about now with four-year-olds today and ten-year-olds that are grinding it out at the piano and wanna go out and play football, you know, what do you say to kids today that are in that situation now?
BJ: Well, I don’t think it’s any different basically now than it was during my era of growing up. I don’t think there are any shortcuts. The younger that you can get students to work on developing the basic skills, the better, because the older you get, the more distractions there are in life….
BJ: ….and the more unlikely it is that you’d be able to have that available time to practice and learn the fundamentals. But still I think it’s human nature that young people want to escape from those disciplines and find out things on their own, so I think it’s inevitable and it’s a big challenge for parents to put up with it and to be patient and to just keep plugging away. In my own case, I didn’t really learn the value of practicing and how much fun it is and how rewarding it is until much later on in life. For some reason, I had that feeling when I was young that practicing was a little bit like torturous and….
BJ: ….I needed to escape from it. The older I got and realized that music was such a passionate part of my life, that practicing and developing new ideas and working with it is really the highlight of the day. It’s not something that I would think in terms of getting over with or avoiding. But certainly I didn’t know that when I was nine or ten years old, and my parents would not have been able to convince me of it.
Smitty: Yeah, absolutely. It’s just one of those things where kids have to trust their instructors.
BJ: Yes, as much as possible, and parents have to be patient and persistent and stay with it, particularly if they are perceiving that there’s a special talent or inclination toward it and just keep being as encouraging as you possibly can, and the more preparation, the better. Certainly there are stories of very, very successful musicians who had no formal training. But those are very much the exception, and for most of us it’s a highly competitive field, and the more prepared you are, the better.
Smitty: Yes. Talk about your first meeting with Quincy Jones. That must have been incredible.
BJ: Well, it was. When I first met him, he was, of course, nowhere near the big icon that he ultimately became. He was very successful, but he was an A&R person on the staff at Mercury Records and he was a judge at a jazz competition that I participated in when I was in college at Notre Dame University, and my group won the festival that year, at least partially because Quincy voted for us and liked the music that we were playing, and we became friends right at that moment and he signed me to what became my very first solo effort, called Bold Conceptions. And the friendship continued to grow after that, after I moved to New York City, where because of the fact that he knew so many people, he was able to give me introductions and make it possible for me to get some of my first important jobs. Maybe the first really important one being having the opportunity to work with Sarah Vaughan, and it was through his introduction that I got that job, which led to many other things, so I can count back very many opportunities that I got as a result of the recommendation, kind of like a business card or vote of confidence that I got from him that was very important to me.
Smitty: Yes. I think that is such an important and wonderful thing. Sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle of careers, but getting the breaks and getting the endorsement of someone has just opened so many doors for so many musicians. I think that’s a wonderful thing that we all should never forget so that when we see talent like that that we give them the props that they’re due and give them that opportunity to make the next level, the next step in their careers.
BJ: Absolutely. It’s vitally important. And, by the way, it ties into what we were talking about before about the preparation and the practicing and being ready.
Smitty: You’re so right.
BJ: Because I’ve said so many times that I think most people get some kind of a break at a key point in their professional life, and it’s whether or not you’re really ready to take advantage of it when that break happens or when that opportunity to be heard happens. If you’re really ready with all your guns and all your ammunition and can deliver the goods when that happens, then you can really take advantage of it, but if you aren’t ready and that opportunity comes along, then it’s not good timing and that’s why I try to encourage….and I think it’s so good to encourage young people to really make sure that they prepare themselves as well as they possibly can.
Smitty: Yes, very true. And you didn’t forget where you came from. I mean, you’ve given some artists some excellent opportunities and breaks in their careers. Most notably I think of Kirk Whalum. I still remember when you came into Houston and [laughs]….
BJ: Oh, that was a wonderful time and I have to say too, not in a selfish way exactly, but it certainly was very important for both of us. In my case, having Kirk join my band was a tremendous boost for me because his wonderful talent and his compositions that he contributed to my music and the camaraderie…it really worked on both sides and I’m very happy that I was able to make a contribution to getting Kirk heard by a lot of people. I think it was inevitable that it was going to happen to him anyway, but I was sort of at the right place at the right time and it was a mutual very good feeling that continues to this day.
Smitty: Yes, very cool. You just recently released the DVD from the Montreux Jazz Festival. Why that festival for a DVD? With all the projects and the live performances…I mean, you’ve done a million of ‘em, you know, why this festival for a DVD?
BJ: Well, it was a matter of timing, really. That concert, which dates back to 1986, was one of the real exciting highlights of my live performance career and I have very, very fond memories of it. I think everything went right on that night, I had a fantastic energetic band and we were all enjoying this trip to Europe very much, and that evening caught us, I think, at our best, but due to the complexities of different record labels and the variety of business things, that this recording had just been sitting on the shelf not being able to be seen. And I’d been pushing for quite a long time to try to get it released and it was finally made available and finally we had the right company that was interested in putting it out, so it was one of those things that was long overdue and I’m just happy to have it see the light of day, even if it took 20 years for it to happen.
BJ: Coincidentally, I was just in a conversation with Claude Nobs, who is the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival, and he was over in Singapore kind of introducing a new festival that’s a spin-off of the Montreux Festival that they are just starting up in Singapore, a new jazz festival.
BJ: But in talking to Claude, he was describing to me that he has hundreds of hours of videos from practically every event that was held at Montreux, a lot of which have still not been released too, so there’s more jewels in there that hopefully will see the light of day.
Smitty: Man, let’s hope it happens. One of the things I thought was just so cool when I first looked at the DVD, Live at Montreux, the young Kirk Whalum…he looked like a little boy. [Both laughing.]
BJ: I think we all did, but I look at myself there, I kind of don’t even recognize the change that has taken place over the last 20 years and When I go back and look at it, it’s just….I’m….I can’t believe we had that much energy….
BJ: And you see Gary King jumping up and down. Unfortunately, he passed away a year and a half ago, however, we all miss him very much and I’m happy that we have this record, at least of seeing some of the magnificent playing that he did and the energy and the creativity that he brought to the music. There was a lot about that performance that, to me, is very memorable.
Smitty: Yes, a wonderful recording. All of you guys look like, you know, some young energetic college students. Just out doing a gig, you know? Just making it happen.
BJ: Yeah, it was a time in the music that was quite different. I noticed that a lot in the way that Contemporary Jazz or whatever it was called at that time….there have been so many different words for this genre, you know, the most recent of which being the term “Smooth Jazz,” which none of us like, really, very much because it carries with it such a limited connotation.
BJ: But at that time, if you listen to the music from that concert, it was anything but just smooth. You know, we were playing some pretty high energy music at that time.
Smitty: Yes you were, I sure everyone get to see it because it’s fantastic, and Dean Brown…
BJ: Dean Brown was a wild man.
BJ: He still is. He’s mellowed a bit too. I was just reminiscing with him not too long ago when he was out on tour with David Sanborn’s band and we were remembering back on that era.
Smitty: Yes indeed. Let’s talk about your great new record. It’s called Urban Flamingo…first talk to me about the name because I must say first off I love this record. Great melodies, great grooves, and you’ve got an all star cast of musicians with you on this project. Unbelievable.
BJ: Thanks very much. I’m very proud of it. It’s kind of an eclectic record because it kind of took place….the recordings took place almost over three years, and due to a bunch of schedule complications, it took a while for it to actually get released, but I was able to showcase the guys that I’ve been traveling with on the road and being very happy about that because up until this Urban Flamingo project, I hadn’t really had a chance to have them on my recordings as much as I wanted, and speaking specifically about Al Turner and Ron Otis….
Smitty: Yes, phenomenal musicians!
BJ: ….the rhythm section, on bass and drums, respectively, and also David McMurray on sax, and then very notably the two guitarists, Wayne Gerard and Perry Hughes, and Perry Hughes plays some, I think, fantastic solos on this record and reminds me a lot of the late Eric Gale, who used to play on my albums, and both Perry and I talk a lot about Eric because we both admire his talent so much. You asked about the title Urban Flamingo, which was coined by a very dear friend of mine who lives in the same town where I live, and he and I do some visual art together and collaborate on paintings which we do via the computer. The art that I do is digital art and we had a small exhibition of our paintings in the local area in the city and we titled the evening of this exhibit “Urban Flamingo” after the style of the paintings, which were these drips which when as we were doing them, it reminded my friend of a flamingo.
They were actually inspired by some blobs of red paint that we saw on the walls of an office building in Montreal, Canada that took place after a big anti-war demonstration, and we’re pretty sure that some graffiti artist had run down the street with a big can of red paint and, in response to his feelings about the war rolled these red paint blobs up against the wall, and to us it became, in a very strange abstract kind of way, this beautiful red abstract art ala Jackson Pollack or whatever. So it’s very difficult for me to describe all of that in a short way.
But having been inspired by it, and I actually just loved the term “Urban Flamingo” no matter how you could take it. You could take it in this way of the intensity of urban life and the natural beauty of the flamingo who reside in the much calmer natural settings, and the contrast between those two words just sort of meant something to me.
Smitty: Yes. That’s a cool story. Even that title track on the record is fantastic. I mean, Wayne Gerard did some great guitar work there and Ron Otis, I can’t say enough about him. I think he’s in the top three drummers in the country. I just think this guy’s incredible. Every time I see him play I’m just….I’m mesmerized by his abilities. And Al Turner is so slick with that bass. He’s got some great chops. It’s just unbelievable, the melodies on this record.
BJ: Well, I’m so happy to be able to showcase them because the audiences where I perform with these guys are always impressed in that same kind of way, and they’re so talented. My only regret with young performers like that who are obviously on their way up is that it almost always reaches that point where I get ready to go out and do my next tour and they’re so busy that I can’t get ‘em anymore.
BJ: So I try to take advantage of their skills and friendship and everything for as long as I can because I know we’re all at that mercy of the freelance nature of our business and I’m happy for their success, but it’s bittersweet because it means that I’m gonna have to try that much harder to get ‘em the next time around.
Smitty: Yeah, that’s the way it happens. “Skidaway,” I thought that was sort of a different feel from the rest of the record. Talk to me about the arrangements for this song.
BJ: Oh boy, I don’t know. Sometimes it’s really hard to put into words….these instrumental things, that they come from somewhere up there in the mystery of inspiration. I know that the feeling of the way Perry Hughes plays, which is a very, oh, I’ll use the word “shuffle” kind of swing groove that’s a retro kind of feeling that conjures up a lot of things from the past eras of jazz when the grooves were slightly different. It’s hard to put your finger on it exactly, but I knew I wanted to showcase Perry and the way that he plays that’s….as I mentioned before, that there’s an influence from Eric Gale, but there’s also an influence from a particular kind of swing shuffle kind of feeling that I wanted to recreate with that tune.
Smitty: It’s a great tune. And I must say the one that I hear a lot and have just fallen in love with is “Lay Down With You.” That is just….and Hilary [James] has a great voice.
BJ: Well, of course I’m very happy to hear you say that, being a proud father.
Smitty: Congratulations my friend!
BJ: Thank you! But having known that for many years and to have so much sentimental feeling about the memory of the project that we did together called Flesh & Blood some years ago, Hilary has kind of shifted away from being in the music business full-time, partially because she didn’t really love the strain of the full-time aspect of it, but even more significantly to me, she became very busy being a mom having delivered to us our first and only grandchild, our granddaughter Ava Marie, who’s now four and a half years old, and so Hilary’s been pretty busy in the mom category and I’m not sure if and when she’s going to want to go back into the hard, tough business world of music, but at least she still loves singing and I was delighted to have her guest on that song, which she co-wrote with her husband Kevin [DiSimone].
Smitty: Wow, you know, Bob, her voice could cross over any genre.
BJ: That’s what I feel too, and she’s so well versed in so many areas of music, I think it shows through in the style in which she sings.
BJ: She studied musical theater, she obviously has a very strong background and knowledge about jazz and its history as a result of our family and our interests, and she kinda doesn’t need to be categorized too much because she’s stayed a little bit one step removed from the commercial part of the firing line in the music business, so she just sings what she feels and that’s what I love about it. It comes out natural and spontaneous.
Smitty: Yes. Now, I’ve gotta ask you, Bob, have you guys set Ava Marie in front of the piano yet? [Both laughing.]
BJ: We have. As a matter of fact, she just sent me a tape that they made of “Happy Birthday” to my sister who just celebrated a birthday a couple of weeks ago, and they sent their greetings out from Ohio, where they live, and of course it includes Ava Marie singing “Happy Birthday” on it. I heard this MP3 file via e-mail when I was over in Singapore and it was great, who knows what twists and turns that she’s going to take being just four years old. I’m not sure whether she’ll gravitate to the piano or not, she has so many different interests, but it’s really fun watching it as a grandparent.
Smitty: That’s totally cool. Your new record Urban Flamingo was released about three ago?
BJ: Yes it was released three weeks ago, I believe it was.
Smitty: Three weeks ago, yeah. So it’s on the street. This is a great record for any collection. I mean, I hope I don’t miss anyone on this record; Earl Klugh; Hilary, your daughter; Wayne Gerard, Dave McMurray; Ron Otis; Al Turner; Nathan East; Perry Hughes; what a lineup. I mean, this is like one of those jammin’ all star groups, you know?
BJ: Well, it really is a cross-section of a lot of my favorite people, musicians that I’ve been associated with for a long time. I should also mention that I managed to squeeze in one cut with my favorite trio rhythm section that I had just made my previous Take It From the Top album with Billy Kilson on drums and James Genus on bass, and even though they weren’t around to be able to participate on a lot of the tunes, I got the one very funky tune that they played on [“Niles A Head”], which I’m happy for that.
Smitty: Yes. I’m not even going ask you to name a favorite album. Forget it. They’re all special projects
BJ: Well, you know, Smitty, somebody else put it so well that….and I know that I feel the same way….it’s like if you have a bunch of children and someone asks you who is your favorite child, it’s an impossible question to answer. You can’t because you love them all equally, and these recordings do feel like children to me, like you go through birth pains when you’re making them and you feel like that they all deserve a life of their own, and very often I have found, too, that things that sort of didn’t pop out as being the most successful when they were first made sometimes turn out to have a life of their own much later, when the right people hear them at the right time or whatever that fate is, so I really like to avoid being the person to judge any of that stuff. I think it’s out of my hands at that point and it’s really in the audience’s hands.
Smitty: Yes indeed. Well, I rank Urban Flamingo right up there with the rest of them, I will tell you that much.
BJ: Well, I sure do appreciate that. That makes me feel real good.
Smitty: And I must thank you for one thing, “Westchester Lady,” because that was the first ever jazz tune I’ve ever heard.
BJ: Well, I’m glad that you stayed with the genre.
BJ: And I’m glad that “Westchester Lady” was a catalyst. It certainly is an old friend for me and I still end up playing it almost every time I play a live performance.
Smitty: Absolutely. Bob, you’ve just added another masterpiece to your brilliant collection, it’s distributed through the Koch label and they’ve done an excellent job getting it out there and they’re to be commended for that, and thank you so much for another great record. It comes highly recommended!
BJ: Well, Smitty, thank you very much for the interview and the nice conversation. I’m so happy that you like the new record and hope I’ll be able to keep providing ‘em for you in the future.
Smitty: Please do, my friend. Bob thanks again my friend, and we must do this again.
BJ: I hope that we will many times in the future.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
For More Information Visit www.bobjames.com and www.kochrecords.com.
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