KILLING YOU SOFTLY WITH HIS SONGYOU MIGHT THINK IT'S JAZZ, BUT IT'S BOB JAMES
It's become a clich, how fake jazzers like Dave Grusin and the Rippingtons' Russ Freeman gush endlessly over the merits of their weightless fare, preaching as though their lobotomized music will guarantee happiness for anyone turning an ear and a billfold in their direction.
But fellow bloodless brother Bob James, pianist and leader of the group Fourplay, knows better. He's been somewhat troubled over the years that the instrumental pabulum he churns out is closer to elevator music than actual jazz, and has said so in print more than once. Yet it doesn't trouble him that much, apparently; Bob James gave up art a long time ago in exchange for something else: money.
A bit of history: Keyboardist/arranger James is actually the patriarch of Grusin and the other zombies composing the present pupjazz epidemic, having long ago pared down every jazz element that might confuse or challenge listeners. On every James album from the mid-Seventies to the present, the syncopation of jazz is diluted with the predictable drumming of an average pop band, complex melodies are avoided in favor of short ditties, and the interplay of musicians--essential in defining jazz--is replaced with long-distance layers of studio overdubbing.
James knows if you want to appeal to the masses, you've got to water things down. The music "is not a purely aesthetic assignment," James admitted to Downbeat as far back as October 1975, adding that "there is some compromise" regarding "the size of the audience we want to reach."
No wonder James sounded uneasy even then, long before his pupjazz became the norm: Unlike Grusin, Freeman and his other less-seasoned peers, James played swing, prefusion and avant-garde jazz before settling into his present, 20-year-long rut of cotton-candy music. It's from personal experience that Bob James knows his albums reek of vapidity when facing the standards of soulful jazz playing.
Few fans of the latest Fourplay release, Between the Sheets, or Cool, the last James collaboration with guitarist Earl Klugh, appreciate that in 1963, the 23-year-old James was the pianist for both vocal legend Sarah Vaughan and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. Or that two years later, James moved into even deeper waters when his Trio cut the risk-taking, free-jazz album Explosions. James' recording was released alongside offerings from jazz giants of the day Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, as well as legendary pianist Bud Powell. And James would soon find out something his lofty peers already knew: Free jazz doesn't sell.
What the pianist wanted was money, and he got a taste of the green courtesy of gigs backing Dionne Warwick and Roberta Flack. James struck gold in 1974 when his arrangement of "Feel Like Makin' Love" became a best-selling hit for Flack.
His next move was to sign with CTI, a successful slick-jazz label, and James was soon turning his sales from oddity into commodity. He not only cranked out four well-received albums for the label, but also became a session man and stock arranger for the company.
In spite of his newfound fame, James was squirming. "We all go through the emotional schizophrenia of deciding which talent will out," he told Downbeat regarding his real jazz versus real bucks struggle, "and the gnawing guilt of spreading oneself too thin wells up."
But that gnawing guilt didn't stop him from breaking the bank in 1978 with his tune "Angela," used as the theme to the popular TV show Taxi. The rest of the cuts on the Touchdown album, as well as those albums before and after, could have been theme music for the limpest commercial ever to flash on the idiot box.
By the Eighties, James had the money but no respect from the respectable jazz community; he attempted to reestablish a sense of substance with two pseudoclassical, synth-drenched releases. "There are a few of us jazz musicians who have crossed over into the classical world, Wynton [Marsalis] being the most dramatic of those," James told JAZZIZ magazine in 1989.
Marsalis, historically unequaled in his abilities in both the jazz and classical idioms, would probably backhand James for his masturbatory elevation of the latter's cornball classical interpretations.
James made another stab at validity by seeking out the sound of perfection, thanks to the ever-evolving mechanics of the studio. While James refined his abilities as a producer, his discs became so flawless they seemed drained of the human element. Live takes were seldom the norm for a Bob James session, and even partners sharing billing on his discs weren't necessarily recording together in person. Saxophonist David Sanborn, who ultimately left the pupjazz scene to record meatier material, told this reviewer in 1992 that his 1986 Bob James duet Double Vision "wasn't really a jazz record. I came into the studio and just laid down a track over what was already in the can. I don't have a good feel regarding that album." Way back in 1975, James, already reliant on the slickness of multilayered production, admitted to Downbeat that "true, the exchange of ideas and the vibes that are transposed from artist to artist may be missing, but we don't feel that warrants bringing everyone together at once."
James' latest trick is wand-waving weak jazz tunes into weak sex tunes: Maybe watered-down jazz with no edges can still succeed as the perfect, unobtrusive bedroom music. Check out the formula of Between the Sheets, on which the bass and drums ride a funk groove while James' piano and the guitar of Lee Ritenour play the slow n' smooth lines. It's as though we're not meant to hear a jazz band but a soft-porn soundtrack. Not a bad idea, but one that funk bands were bringing to climax back in the Seventies when James was only feeling like making love.
The lovers-only recording Cool is even worse, and as hollow as any kootchy-koo disc you're likely to hear. For all the listener can tell from the sparse keyboard doodling on either album, James is playing with one hand either tied behind his back or busy in his lap. Cool may be one of the most repetitive discs in music history, built on nursery-rhyme melodies relentlessly drilled into the listener with the skill of the most ruthless cult programming.
Sadly, no one listening to Fourplay's recent Between the Sheets back to back with James' 1974 first solo outing would discern any musical development over the two decades, apart from the application of a few new recording tricks. In fact, Bob James One stands as the more creative album by far.
Not that many James fans have noticed the loss of potency over the years; Fourplay's debut disc took the No. 2 slot in last year's JAZZIZ Reader's Poll in both the Best Group Album and Electronic Keyboard categories. The yuppie audience continues to buy his music, his bank account continues to grow, and a Bob James concert will usually sell out. In more ways than one. Bob James will perform on Monday, January 24, at the Roxy, with Fourplay. Showtimes are 7 and 9:30 p.m.
BAHIA KINO... v1-20-94
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