By Dan Emerson
On their recent tour, 82 year old keyboardist and composer emeritus Bob James and his 20-something drummer, James Adkins, have been swapping vital information.
The well-traveled jazz lifer has been helping Adkins navigate the twists and turns of the road; when the trio played the Dakota jazz club for two nights, Orlando, Fla. native James saw snow for the first time. Meanwhile, James has credited his talented, modernist percussionist with exposing him to “a new way of thinking about music.”
“He doesn’t behave,” James told the Dakota audience, paying tribute to Adkins’ penchant for rhythmic interaction and innovative musical improv.
James is far from the first member of the hip hop generation to help James expand his musical horizons. Some of his radio hits were sampled by a number of crate-digging hip hop architects of the 1990s, including Eric B & Rfakim, the Wu-tang Clan and Slick Rick.
One example is “Nautilus,” sampled a reported 366 times. Like most of his generation, James had to learn about the new concept of sampling, and when the royalty checks started arriving in his mailbox, he was glad he did.
The quality appreciated by the crate-digging nouveau rich is also what has made him one of the most commercially successful pop-jazz instrumentalists of all time; he has an unfailing sense of groove, along with a gift for melody.
James and the trio’s weekend performances at the Dakota had plenty of “whisper to a scream” dynamics, musical twists and energy belying his advanced age. Like other legacy artists with lengthy back catalogs, he likes to rework familiar tunes from his past, to keep things ineresting for himself and the audience. On Saturday night James introduced his reconfigured rendition of Nautilus as “Nautilus 2.0”. The tune featured some thunderous drumming by Adkins, who also captured the spotlight with some subdued, Latin-tinged polyrhythms.
James’ only concession to age may have been the I-Pad-like tablet he used to read sheet music – understandable, given the sheer size of his catalog of piano hits.
Some of the tunes James revisited at the Dakota were reminders of his fruitful, 60-album tenure as an ace studio musician for CTI Records mogul Creed Taylor, helping artists like Grover Washington, Jr. Roberta Flack and become platinum-selling, pop music icons. James, played keys on the original recording of Roberta Flack’s mega-hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” revisited that piece on Saturday night. It concluded with some slightly distorted bass notes on the synth that segued into “Night Crawler.”
The former CTI sideman reprised Washington’s 1970s funk-jazz smash “Mr Magic,” with the familiar melody cleverly disguised, draped in harmonic embellishments. Another of his early radio hits, “Westchester Lady,” featured some punchy interplay with Adkins, who is a master of dynamics.
The trio also features another virtuosic young musician, Canadian-born bassist Michael Palazzolo, who has been with James for about four years. The use of acoustic, rather than the electric bass usually employed in funk-fusion helped the trio sidestep some familiar jazz funk (or “smooth jazz”) cliches. Throughout the set, Palazzolo, a regular on the Detroit modern jazz scene, frequently doubled the melody on his upright.
Saturday night’s late set also featured two pieces from James’ 2018 trio album “Espresso:” “Shadow Dance” and “Up Top.”
James closed the Saturday show by revisiting his signature tune, “Angela,” from his BJ4 album. In 1977, the producers of a new network TV series called “Taxi” asked him to submit background music. Choosing a title song for the series, they passed up James’ suggest of his tune “Touchdown,” in favor of “Angela,” thus expanding his fan base well beyond the jazz/pop instrumental world. James became “the guy who wrote the theme music for ‘Taxi.’”
Dan Emerson is a freelance writer and musician.