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"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" Bob James

Smitty: After 40 years of making great music, my next guest still remains in his heyday.  How many musicians do you know that could say that?  He was my first introduction to jazz music and he’s still one of my favorite musicians. We know him from such brilliant projects such as Touchdown, Bob James Three, Four, Playin' Hooky, Grand Canyon Piano…if I keep talking I’ll be out of breath. I honestly think that this guy, if you could analyze his DNA, most likely you’d find some gold and platinum.  Please give a standing ovation for my next guest, the incomparable Mr. Bob James.  Bob, how ya doin’?

Bob James (BJ):  I’m great, Smitty, and thank you very much for that flattering introduction. It’s a bittersweet feeling to know that I’ve had so many years at doing this, but in some ways it does remind you of your age.

Smitty:  [Laughs.]  Yeah, I think we both dated ourselves there.  But what a wonderful ride it’s been, you know?

BJ:  Oh, it really has been. I feel so lucky to be part of this field and to me it’s great to see jazz continuing to thrive and grow and change into so many different permutations. It’s a tribute to the generic strength that it’s had from the very beginning. It’s over a hundred years of, you know, great music and to just be a little bit of a part of that is a great feeling.

Smitty:  Yes indeed, my friend.  Now, I go back to….my first introduction to your music was Bob James Three and then, of course, I went out and got the whole collection at that point, and it has just been a beautiful ride, and one thing that I appreciate so much is the consistency of your music.  I have never heard anyone say anything about a bad record when they talk about Bob James, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.  It speaks volumes for the consistency of what’s in your heart in terms of making great music.

BJ:  Well, that’s very nice of you and that’s the kind of compliment that I value very highly because I have been very lucky to be in a position most of the time to have pretty much artistic control over my projects.  A lot of artists suffer from sometimes the economics of this business and having record companies tell them what to do and what they can do and what they can’t do, and that always compromises the music, in my opinion.  In my case, I can’t really….certainly I can’t blame anybody else for whatever lack of merits that there would be.  It’s on my shoulders and I have had wonderful opportunities to make music my own way.

Smitty:  Yes indeed, and as fans, we’re very fortunate and so glad that you have been in that wonderful position because over the years, I just can’t say enough about the wonderful music that has come from those keys and from the arrangements that you’ve created. It’s just a magnificent ride of great music. What a wonderful book of music over the past 40 years. I am somewhat curious….with your first project, do you ever revert back to those first arrangements and say “Hey, I wanna do something like I did back then”?  Did you ever do that in any of your projects along the way?

BJ:  It’s hard to avoid thinking along those lines sometimes because when I think back on trying to figure out the reasons why I’ve had the opportunities that I’ve had, you sort of theorize what made this work or what made some pieces work better than others?  But I’ve always felt that it’s real dangerous to theorize too much and even though the future is an unknown thing and when you start into a new blank project, it’s a bit scary sometimes, I think that it’s important to look ahead and to try to keep creating something new.

Smitty:  Yes!  Now, you attended the University of Michigan?

BJ:  Yes, I was there as a student for five years back in the late fifties, early sixties.

Smitty:  Yeah.  Do you get back there as much to visit and perhaps collaborate and do some master classes, any of that kind of thing?

BJ:  I haven’t done a lot.  Most of my trips back there took place when my daughter was also in school at the University of Michigan, but since she graduated, I haven’t had too many opportunities to go back there and, frankly, my schedule is always so busy that I haven’t done that much in terms of teaching.  It’s occasionally I get that opportunity. Just last week I was in Singapore, actually, and did a sort of master class Q&A session that made me realize how out of practice I am about putting some of the stuff that I do into words.  So much of the time I’m working with the level of professionalism where you don’t really have to say anything; you just play and make the music and let it speak for itself.  And when I’m standing in front of a room full of young people, students, sometimes I get a little tongue tied.

Smitty:  [Laughs.]  Oh, but that’s a beautiful feeling to have that opportunity, though, it’s gotta be.

BJ:  It is, and you do want to try to pass along to the next generation the benefit of whatever experience you’ve had and I’m always appreciative that anybody would care enough to want to ask me questions about what I do, and certainly I would want to try to communicate the best that I can.  My music has never been really anything that was organized in any kind of a methodic way.  I think that’s one of the reasons why I have trouble translating it into an educational thing.  I know if I did more that I’d have to really work on developing that sort of methodology and that I see some other people that are involved in education do so well.

Smitty:  I must say that before I listened to your music, I had never heard of the Fender Rhodes, and my first thought was “What is this instrument?”  It was like this funky piano, you know?  Talk about your first recollection with the Rhodes and what that did for you in terms of creating great music.

BJ:  Well, I think I was very lucky in the timing. I became pretty much associated with that sound because my first records for the CTI label….One, Two, Three and Four….all heavily were created using the Fender Rhodes, which was quite popular at the time, and I think we were going through this transition with jazz being influenced by what was going on in rock and in other areas of pop music, and just by virtue of wanting to incorporate some new sounds and more electronic orchestration, if you will, it was something that was kinda thrust upon us, and the first times that I used the Fender Rhodes on studio dates when I was just being hired as a sideman, it was something that was….I won’t say it was forced on me, but it was not totally my decision.  It was more just what was going on at the time. And because of the fact that I was starting to make my solo records and ended up using that sound on a lot of the melodies, I just became associated with it. I noticed at the time that a lot of pianists had problems adjusting to the touch, which if you played with the same kind of touch that you would do on a normal acoustic grand piano, it just didn’t work. That was too much and kinda would, at least to me, create a kind of a distorted almost kind of sound, so I tried to develop a very different touch when I played the Fender Rhodes from what I used on the grand piano.

Smitty:  It’s such a unique sound even when I hear it today. There’s just something about the Rhodes. I just love that instrument. 

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