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Bob James

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Bob James is a prolific, best-selling, Grammy-winning composer, arranger, producer, and jazz pianist, and one of the core creators of smooth jazz.
His six-decade-plus career has crisscrossed musical genres ranging from classical to jazz and pop. In addition to gold- and platinum-selling albums on his own and in various collaborations -- as a member of Fourplay, with Earl Klugh, and many others -- he issued four numerically titled albums for CTI in the mid-'70s which have since been prodigiously sampled by hip-hop artists. (Two songs in particular, "Nautilus" from 1974's One and "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" from 1975's Two, are among the most sampled titles in history.) James was a noted arranger and producer at CTI, honing his skills with Creed Taylor and working with label artists who included Grover Washington, Jr., Hank Crawford, Gabor Szabo, and Esther Phillips. While at CTI, James found great popularity and success overseeing charts for Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Maynard Ferguson, and Kenny Loggins.
James has also written extensively for film and television. One of his signature tunes, "Angela," from the 1978 album Touchdown, is the instantly recognizable theme for the hit television show Taxi, a standard in the legacy of pop, jazz, and popular culture at large; James has also composed and arranged for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. During the '80s, in addition to jazz records (including Double Vision, the first of his collaborations with David Sanborn), he cut three classical, commercially successful titles for the Columbia Masterworks imprint which won the acclaim of tough-minded critics. During the '90s, he released his contemporary jazz masterwork Grand Piano Canyon, issued collaborative albums with his daughter, vocalist Hilary James, and Kirk Whalum. He also co-founded the jazz supergroup Fourplay, which remains a going concern. James' 21st century achievements include the concert offering Angels of Shanghai, that showcases his compositions in a group featuring members of Fourplay, a quintet of Chinese conservatory students playing traditional folk instruments, and a DJ. James also released the solo piano offering Alone: Kaleidoscope by Solo Piano, Quartette Humaine with Sanborn, Altair & Vega with Keiko Matsui, and The New Cool with Fourplay's bassist Nathan East.
James was born in Marshall, Missouri, the youngest of two children to Albert Lamkin James and Alice (née McElhiney) James. He began playing piano at age four and at seven discovered he had the gift of perfect pitch. As an adolescent, James began his professional career in earnest. His early opportunities included membership in the Earle Parsons Dance Band, for whom he penned his first large-band composition. He received more music instruction during high school. In addition to piano, James learned trumpet, timpani, and percussion. Between 1950 and 1956 he competed at Missouri State Fair piano competitions, winning several blue ribbons. He initially attended the University of Michigan to earn a Bachelor's and Master's in music, but during his sophomore year, he transferred to Boston's Berklee College of Music (his roommate was baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola).
While at Michigan, James dug deep into free jazz with area musicians and formed his own trio. In 1962, his group entered the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival competition; the judges included Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones. After James' band won the contest, Jones signed James to Mercury Records, where he released his debut album Bold Conceptions (1963), a free bop exploration produced by Jones. After graduating from Berklee, James moved to New York, where he met Bernard Stollman from ESP-Disk. He brought the impresario a tape he'd produced with his own trio and sound artists Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma from the Once Group whom he'd known and worked with in Ann Arbor. His ESP-Disk offering, Explosions, was released in 1965. James also worked as an arranger and piano accompanist for Sarah Vaughan.
He reunited with Jones in the late '60s and did some arranging for studio sessions that became Hubert Laws' Crying Song and Jones' own Walking in Space. Producer and entrepreneur Creed Taylor, who founded CTI, attended some sessions and, impressed, signed James to his label as a producer, arranger, and studio musician. The pianist worked on albums by Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Washington, Jr., and Ferguson, all before recording his label debut One in 1974. Between One and BJ4, his 1977 swan song, James, along with Don Sebesky, became one of the label's arranging and producing anchors.
In 1977, James left CTI and founded his own Tappan Zee label. The following year he recorded "Angela" and the album Touchdown. Because it -- and other original music he penned -- were so closely associated with the wildly popular sitcom Taxi, the album blew up, attaining platinum status. James eventually composed the series' original music for its entire run. In 1980, James and Earl Klugh recorded the duet offering One on One, the first of three collaborations in a decade; it sold over a million copies was awarded a Grammy in 1980 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. James was by this time a standard bearer for the smooth jazz sound.
A different aspect of the musical talent of Bob James was demonstrated on the three classical albums he recorded for the CBS Masterworks division, the first of which was Rameau, released in 1984, that showcased his performances of the composer's works on contemporary instruments, including synthesizer. After the release of Double Vision with Sanborn in 1986 -- another platinum seller and Grammy winner -- he issued two more classical titles for Masterworks, The Scarlatti Dialogues in 1986 and Concertos for Two & Three Keyboards BWV 1060, 1061, 1063 with Güher and Süher Pekinel in 1989. While recording Grand Piano Canyon in 1990, James reunited with longtime friend, drummer Harvey Mason, Jr. James also worked with guitarist Lee Ritenour and bassist Nathan East for the first time during those sessions. These sessions ignited a creative spark and led to the formation of Fourplay, who released their self-titled debut in 1991. They issued three more albums before Ritenour left the group in 1988; he was replaced by Larry Carlton, who stayed for 12 years before being replaced by Chuck Loeb. In 1994, James issued the jazz-funk outing Restless, featuring Michael Brecker and East, and a charting contribution from Luther Vandross via the track "Under Me." James and daughter Hilary were co-billed on Flesh & Blood and released a self-titled album in 1995, followed by a tour of 15 American cities. He also collaborated on separate projects with Earl Klugh, (Cool) and Kirk Whalum (Joined at the Hip). Both were nominated for Grammys. His 1999 Joy Ride CD resulted in another Grammy nomination.
In 2001, James' Dancing on the Water, included contributions from pianists Keiko Matsui and Joe Sample, double bassist Dave Holland, and Loeb. With Fourplay he released Heartfelt in 2002 and toured the globe. James also released his own Morning, Noon, & Night, whose title track hit the top spot on the Contemporary Jazz Radio chart. While appearing at New York's Blue Note in 2003, James entered the Hit Factory with a rhythm section comprised of drummer Billy Kilson and bassist James Genus. Their resulting album, Take It from the Top, was a sterling a tribute to the pianists who inspired James: Ahmad Jamal, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Oscar Peterson, among others.
Fourplay released Journey in 2004 and toured most of the year, ending in Bangkok, Thailand in December of the following year. The event featured the world premiere live performance of James' The Angels of Shanghai; the release was issued in 2006, with a U.S. release in 2007. It was performed later that year at the prestigious Seongnam Arts Center in Seoul, Korea. James also released Urban Flamingo in February 2006 and was awarded the George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards. Summer saw the release of Fourplay’s tenth offering, appropriately called X, followed by a world tour.
In 2008, James and Hilary released Christmas Eyes, followed by the Fourplay album Energy that featured Esperanza Spalding. It yielded another Grammy nomination for its first single, "Fortune Teller." The year ended with James receiving an International Achievement Award from the State of Michigan.
James and guitarist Jack Lee 2009 released the collaborative work Botero, that included music composed for the Broadway play Impressionism. He also cut Across the Groove, a collaboration with Japanese sax player Masato Honda, leading to a tour across Asia, Europe, and the U.S.
2010 saw the release of the 12th Fourplay album. It led to another world tour, culminating in an unforgettable collaboration with the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo that December. This event premiered new orchestral pieces arranged specifically for the concert; it was Fourplay's first performance with a symphony orchestra. Fourplay was voted Best Group of the Year at the American Smooth Jazz Awards.
James always felt a kinship for Japan, a nation that had been so generous to him throughout his career. In 2011, in the aftermath of the Fukushima and earthquake disasters there, James helped to realize the Jazz for Japan benefit album, and the Iwate benefit concert, which he headlined.
That September, Altair & Vega, a four-handed piano duet collaboration with Keiko Matsui, was released. The unique collaboration took nearly ten years to complete, as it was compiled from memorable live performances between the pair. It was issued with a performance DVD recorded at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. Later that year, James released another collaboration entitled Just Friends: The Hamilton Hall Sessions with guitarist Howard Paul. Fourplay headlined the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl that year, and received the Oasis Contemporary Jazz Award for Group of the Year. James was also honored in Marshall, Missouri with the inaugural "Bob James Jazz Festival."
In 2012, Fourplay resumed recording and issued Esprit de Four, which peaked at number two on the Jazz Albums chart. It produced several singles, including "Put Our Hearts Together," featuring vocals by Seiko Matsuda. The song was a tribute to the regions of Japan devastated by disasters just months earlier, and spawned several benefit concerts, such as the Iwate Jazz Festival, and a documentary of James' visit to the region. In 2013, James and Sanborn collaborated on Quartette Humaine. It marked the first recorded creative collaboration between the keyboardist and alto saxophonist since their platinum-certified Double Vision 25 years earlier. In 2014, the University of Michigan School of Music inducted James into its Hall of Fame, and celebrated with a week's worth of events.
2015 saw the release of Live at the Milliken Auditorium, captured solo on a single night in Traverse City, Michigan. The same year also brought The New Cool, the first duo release from James and East. Still not finished, James and Fourplay issued the full-length Silver, recorded live to tape at Sunset Sound Studios, it commemorated the band's first recording session 25 years earlier.
James' first piano concerto was premiered in 2015 by the Tokyo Philharmonic, and had its U.S. Premiere with the Traverse City Symphony in June 2016. The following year, James became the first recipient of the Traverse City Opera House Ambassador for the Arts Award. That March, pianist and flutist Nancy Stagnitta, an Interlochen Arts Academy instructor, recorded a series of duets live in concert at the Interlochen Center for the Arts' Dendrinos Chapel. It was a released in early 2018 as In the Chapel in the Moonlight. That August, James released Espresso, his first studio date leading a jazz piano trio since 2006's Urban Flamingo. Featuring drummer Kilson and the young Detroit bassist Michael Palazzo, it was inspired by a week of performances by the group at New York City's Blue Note the previous fall. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi

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