Bob James Trio
Returning to the trio format after a recent lovely foray into duo work with Nathan East, here the master player and composer stretches his fingers across jazz, his first love. Small combo playing has been a huge part of James’ career whether polite (Fourplay) or deep and funky (the classic early 70s albums now sampled widely across modern soul and hip-hop) but often his playing is just one of many voices – here, as with his debut all those years ago, he’s the main instrumental voice. And his playing shines; resplendent.
This new trio formed seemingly on a whim in late 2017 – veteran drummer Billy Kilson and a young bassist named Michael Palazzolo played with James and the chemistry was instantly noted. That’s led to the creation of this album of mostly Bob James originals.
The opener, Bulgogi, sets the tone for the record. Immaculate ballad phrasing with a building cross-stick rhythm beneath. The piano is playful, the rhythm section just sitting in behind to support.
We immediately get notes of James the composer and arranger on the following track, Shadow Dance. The lovely space between notes. The gentle sizzle of a rhumba-like rhythm. And then it’s to the album’s first of two covers. A charming, filmic run through of Fats Wallers’ Ain’t Misbehavin’ – it’s rom-com ready but as the tune unfolds we hear such lovely interplay between the three musicians and James really wails on the solo.
One Afternoon seems to come from James’ soundtrack work, essentially a solo piano piece with Send In The Clowns-styled synth-horns and strings.
The funk of the album is presented largely by a playful update of Mister Magic, the song James first approached as player/arranger on a mid-70s Grover Washington outing. Here Palazzolo might be the star, his bass urgent and nudging, Kilson building a jittery groove that bounces between hi-hat and ride cymbal.
In his 80th year Bob James sounds as good as he ever has. Mr. Consistent as he strides through Topside’s electric piano reminiscent of the Taxi-era of late 70s/early 80s, so gentle on Il Boccalone’s cautious ballad, and then fierce and purposeful in an almost strident-strut through Mojito Ride.
If I had a gripe it’s that I don’t think the wash of electric piano and synth is needed. It clouds the majesty of the straight acoustic trio work. But maybe, at this stage, that’s like asking James to ditch a favourite old cardy. It’s part of his toolbox, a trusty old hammer by now.
There’s so much to enjoy around that though, Promenade’s lovely bass solo and brush playing that arrives on the back of yet another stately Bob James melody, the reminders of that cosmopolitan 70s jazz-funk (Boss Lady) and some brittle-edged funk with reminders of his past (on Submarine James even drops in a sample of himself – his well-worn, much-loved Nautilus).
So often the smoothest of the smooth-jazz players, everything that was ever there to recommend Bob James to a listener, from thoughtful piano playing to his strong blocks from the Fender Rhodes…well it’s all here. And almost all of it is sublime.