Bob James Trio: Take It From the Top (2004)
Bob James, one of the most popular jazz artists of all time, has over the course of the past 35 years elected to treat his older fans with an album of all acoustic songs from the Great American Songbook, tunes that are associated with jazz pianists who influenced him over the years. It seems that this happens about once every decade, or whenever Halley's Comet is expected.
The last occurence was in 1995 on Straight Up, with Christian McBride and Brian Blade. Although he started recording in the 1960s, it wasn't until he hooked up with CTI Records in the early '70s as a sideman (appearing on a multitude of sessions for the likes of Paul Desmond, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan) and then by 1974 recording under his own name, that his fame began. By the end of the decade, James' albums became increasingly pop-jazz or fusion material, or as they would be known today, smooth jazz, under his own Tappan Zee label and a long term contract with Columbia Records. Among other projects, Bob James is now one quarter of the smooth jazz cooperative Fourplay.
The intent in this session was not to imitate jazz pianists but rather to find the appropriate groove that the original artists sought in these recordings. He succeeds in largely capturing the spirit of the respective pianists. "Billy Boy" is a tribute to the Miles Davis version from the late 1950s and James actually performs it the way that Red Garland, Miles' pianist, performed it in a trio format (while Miles was backstage having a smoke). In actuality, Miles borrowed his arrangement from the earlier performance of Ahmad Jamal. Later, James honors Jamal directly through his signatory version of "Poinciana," on which drummer Billy Kilson emulates Vernell Fournier's toms quite well.
Likewise, we have homages to Oscar Peterson for "Tenderly," Bill Evans' "Nardis," Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes," and John Lewis' "Django." "Caravan" is done in the style of Erroll Garner and "Straighten Up and Fly Right" as a remembrance of the Nat King Cole trio days. Catching the spirit on the latter, I was a little annoyed that Kilson's stick work kept me from mentally completing the picture since there was no drummer on the historical recording.
Finally, in a bit of a stretch, Bob James seeks to honor classical composer/pianist Glenn Gould. Knowing that Gould was a fan of British singer Petula Clark, he elects to perform her biggest hit "Downtown" with a few classical glisses thrown in for good measure.
I hope that this album won't confuse the fans of Fourplay too much and if we can get one of these tracks on Top 40 charts, maybe we'll see more of Mr. James in this setting.
Track Listing: Billy Boy, Straighten Up and Fly Right, Downtown, Tenderly, Nardis, Poinciana, Caravan, Soul Eyes, Django.
Personnel: Bob James, piano; James Genus, bass; Billy Kilson, drums