Smitty: Welcoming back to JazzMonthly.com is one of the great innovators of music. He’s just an incredible musician. When it comes to making great music he has no demarcations! He’s created, once again, a magnificent new project. It’s called Angels of Shanghai. Please welcome back the incomparable Mr. Bob James. Bob, how ya doin’, my friend?
Bob James (BJ): I’m doing great, Smitty, and it’s a pleasure to be talking with you.
Smitty: Absolutely, my friend. Thank you. The pleasure’s all mine as well. Well, you have done it again with this great record and I must say that when I first heard about this project, I said, “You know, who would’ve thought?” But you have seamlessly created something very unique in that you’ve got these incredible players from the Far East and you’ve blended your own style here, and yet you created something new within Bob James as well.
BJ: Well, it’s been a major labor of love, a project that’s so dear to my heart, because it was a big challenge and I knew I was taking on something so different and had no idea what direction it was gonna take when I first started out, but now that it’s completed and I have had such good reaction to it, it’s a very heartwarming feeling.
Smitty: Absolutely, man. That’s great. Talk a little bit more about what your thoughts were coming into this project because I’m sure you had some sort of goal of what you wanted to accomplish here, because this is just something that you don’t hear every day, but what a wonderful project.
BJ: Well, there’s a lotta elements to it, Smitty, one of which is that I have been traveling more and more to the Far East and it seems like there are so many interesting opportunities over there in various foreign countries, not just Japan. Japan has been a big supporter of jazz and our music for so many years and I’ve been going there at least once a year for a long, long time and have made many friends there, but a lot of the other countries in the Far East are exploring and taking more interest in our very special field of jazz and this creates a lot of opportunities, but it also, I think, creates a challenge for us to not just go over there and have it be a one-way street, just playing our music and then coming back home again. I really wanted to learn from the great opportunity that I had and this project turned out to be just a fantastic way of learning about how music is the universal language.
Smitty: Yeah, I like that, music is the universal language.
BJ: I didn’t speak any Chinese when I started out and, by the way, I have yet to actually perform live in China. I’m hoping to correct that situation very soon. But the reason why I chose the Chinese instruments and that sound came about for a combination of reasons. There was an introduction that I got to visit Shanghai and listen to the very talented musicians and I became very fascinated, but also China represents probably the oldest tradition and it was almost a kind of a neutral way for me to start learning about the sounds and trying to figure out whether I could make some kind of a marriage between East and West.
Smitty: Well, I think you have. I think you’ve created a fantastic harmony here with this project in that these are some of the best players there and yet you bring with yourself, Nathan East, Harvey Mason, and all that you’ve accomplished in your career to this project. Talk about what it was like when you first started to get in the studio with some of these great players, some of the things that were fascinating to you.
BJ: On my very first trip over there, it had been arranged for me to visit the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, which is a very high end music school there in Shanghai and maybe very similar to the stature that Juilliard has in this country, and they had arranged for me to listen to an audition of their best students, and on that very special day we ended up in this room, which fortunately had a piano in it, and I first listened to five of these musicians play on their traditional instruments and I was blown away by their virtuosity and the interesting sounds, but I hadn’t really prepared anything in the way of music so I was a little bit at a loss as to how to begin to communicate with them.
We had a translator that day that was sort of intimidated that he was almost tongue tied, and me not being able to speak any Chinese and these students not speaking any English, I was afraid we’d end up at a stalemate, so I just decided that I would try to improvise a little bit and go to the piano and try to see if I could find some kind of a scale or sound or some melodic riff or something that would strike a familiar chord enough that maybe they would join in with me, and I was kind of pessimistic about it because it seemed to me from the music that I heard them play that they weren’t really improvisers the way we think about it in the jazz field, but much to my joy and surprise, they immediately joined in and were very willing to explore along with me, and we started just creating this piece from scratch that was a kind of hybrid.
I think none of us really knew exactly what we were doing and I had tears running down my face. It was so exciting, maybe one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened to me in music, and it was on the strength of that day, really, that I decided that I had to somehow try to expand that magical moment into some kind of a CD project.
Smitty: That is incredible, man; I’m getting a little emotional myself as I listen to you. Well, I wondered about some of those things as well, but when I listen to this record, it’s almost like I don’t know if I can relax and enjoy it yet because I’m so amazed by it, you know what I mean? (Both laugh.)
BJ: That’s a uniquely nice compliment. I love that.