– 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.
– Well, thank you for listening for all that time
- 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
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
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
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.
– 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.
– 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
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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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
– 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’.
– 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
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.
– 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.
– 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
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.
– 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
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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
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
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
– 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.
– 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.
– 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
– 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…
– 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.
– 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
– I hope that we will speak soon.
BJ – Thanks Chris, see