Critics are extremely fickle when it comes to determining which style of music is credible. Bob James throughout his forty plus years in the music business has never been particularly a favorite among critics. A common criticism towards his music is that it’s a watered down variation of jazz- stripped of all of its depth in an effort to sell more records. While Mr. James did sell a lot of records, listening to this 20 song double disc anthology of his best work bears the question: What is musical depth? What is musical credibility? Is it an adventurous sort of artist with an unusual or inaccessible sound- who records music for an audience with an esoteric sense of taste? Bob James music does contain a sense of mysticism often associated with musically dynamic bands, but I can tell that his purpose was to record jazz music for the common individual as a means of making it more relatable to a mass audience. His smooth amalgamation of Jazz and R&B invited listeners into a world that was seemingly reserved for only music elitists and hipsters. The world of jazz at that point had gone underground in which you had a series of experimental groups who recorded compositions selective audiences- thus alienating the taste of popular music fans. Bob James had a plan in which he can capture the best of two worlds which he blends the stone face seriousness associated with traditional jazz with the catchy melodies and hooks that are commonplace in top forty singles. It’s something similar to what other Jazz scholars like Roy Ayers and Norman Connors were doing at the time, but in the hands of Mr. James, it became a refined formula that will help lay the foundation of contemporary jazz by way of easy listening (think of WMUA if you live in Chicago). And the straightforwardness of his material also provided a wealth of samples for hip-hop in the years to come.
This set wisely kicks off with perhaps his best-known composition in “Nautilus”. Driven by an addictively simple bassline that’s filtered with strings, Fender Rhodes vamps, and short ended solos, it’s perhaps the best example of Bob James style. The low-fi feel is similar to what you’ll hear in today’s groups like Badbadnotgood. And the five-minute track became for east coast rap what Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” was for west coast rap during its golden period- Nautilus became a reliable standard in sampling for rappers who wanted a definitive sort of vibe that captured the essence of their environment. When you think of the two records from both coasts, think of palm trees and low riders of California and the cold urban jungle of New York. “Valley In the Shadows” is the purest jazz-fusion track on the set with plenty of non-descript solos and brassy horn arrangements to give it a cinematic feel. Recording his first set of records for CTI, a standard for their albums was having reinterpretations of classical music pieces. “Farandole” is a cover of Georges Bizet standard that’s done with great taste and manages to sound almost like an original piece within itself. Listeners will recognize the bells of “Take Me (to the Mardi Gras)” as it’s another song that’s ubiquitous across a lot of classic rap records. For me, the centerpiece of all of his over songs is his take on the Stylistics, “You’re as Right as Rain”. The song just simply washes over the scene like a quiet rainfall on a spring day. The arrangements and overall feel of the song makes it a classic on its own merits. “Storm King” also reveals Bob James as a conceptual composer with a horn arrangement that jumps at you like a group of henchmen committing a hit in a five-star restaurant. His conceptual vision also serves him well on tracks like “Caribbean Nights” where it sounds exactly like a candle lit night on the patio deck of a beach house. Also, another track that’s noteworthy is extended take on the theme to the show Taxi entitled “Angela”- his biggest chart hit. I have clear recollections as a kid hearing the opening for the track on television and immediately changing the channel or going to sleep, but the track- in which I didn’t know that Bob James composed for the show- has grown on me because of this anthology-and hearing the complete composition is not as snooze inducing as the edited theme you’ll hear on the tv-show. It’s a piece that’s perfect for driving home from work (Am I beginning to sound old?)
This anthology is full of great moments that will be a welcome addition to anyone’s collection. As great as this set is, one would’ve liked the inclusion of “Night on Bald Mountain” and the original version of”Westchester Lady” along with the live version that appears here. The quality of the material here proves that instrumental music doesn’t always require one to have the strangest set of sounds imaginable, but one that simply appeals to one’s sensibility with warmth and ease. We make the mistake of thinking that hard-edged music makes you more credible as an artist, but coming from a dedicated music connoisseur like myself, I can tell you about a lot of artists who has recorded great music on the harder end of the spectrum but lacked the large following to solidify their greatness. When you take elements of an esoteric style and make it accessible to a large audience, you find that common ground between your creative aspirations as an artist and what your audience wants to hear. This anthology is proof that mass appeal doesn’t have to be a curse.
This is a guest review by Patrick Frierson. Patrick is an avid music lover and collector. He’s spent the past five years or so collecting nothing but the finest in vintage recordings that range from well-known classics to underground gems. Hopefully, you’ll find his reviews to be inspiring enough to make you want to groove out to some of the coolest albums ever recorded. As a rule, he doesn’t write negative reviews, so if he takes the time and effort to review a recording, he genuinely loves it. His passion ensures that he will place a great deal of care and detail into analyzing albums and sharing the info with the readers of The Penman Post. He hopes you all enjoy it as much as he enjoyed sharing his musical experience with you.