Bob James: Live at Montreux [DVD]

[22 June 2005]

By Will Layman

This is a DVD release of a 1985 concert by jazz pianist Bob James with his crack band of proto-smooth jazz fusioneers. Before we can turn to the product, please:

A Brief History of “Smooth Jazz”

The Die-lemma

. Once upon a time there was just jazz, a mongrel music to be sure, a hybrid music that delighted in its “mixed” origins (African music, European songs, marches, dance music, Latin influence) and could combine itself with other music along the way while still retaining its identity. But when the Big Bad Wolf of rock ‘n’ roll came seriously knocking on the door in the 1960s, sales of jazz records started to fade and the combination of jazz with pop/rock styles became not merely musically inevitable but a matter of marketing—jazz musicians in bell bottoms maybe?

Two Figgers of Note

. A scowling talent named Miles Davis looked to James Brown and Sly Stone to reinvigorate his jazz, and the result was an exciting but somewhat forbidding music, a kind of swamp-funk, acidic jazz that was a spicy gumbo rather than macaroni and cheese. Cool music it was, but not something to out-sell Carole King. A non-scowling man named Creed Taylor, however, had a twinkle in his eye, boys and girls. Mr. CT was a producer with Verve Records in the mid-‘60s, and he took the colossal jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and put a string section behind, got him recording some Beatles songs, and made everybody some cash dollars. “Hey,” he had to thinking, “this jazz music is good for some moolah after all.”

Two “Fusions” Flourish, One Survives

. The alumni of Miles Davis’s bands go forth and form electric ensembles of their own: Herbie Hancock (Headhunters), Tony Williams (Lifetime), Chick Corea (Return to Forever), and Wayne Shorter & Joe Zawinul (Weather Report). These bands use rock energy and electric instruments to generate complex instrumental music that borrows about equally from jazz (much improvising, complex harmony) and progressive rock (odd time signatures, electric guitar and synthesizer virtuosity, suites bad album cover art). In the meantime Mr. Creed Taylor forms his own label, CTI, and combines the easy-listening approach he took to Wes with a “fusion lite” dosage of funk rhythms and Fender Rhodes electric pianos. Putting together a roster of older sellable stars (Chet Baker, Paul Desmond), fusioneers (Mr. Hancock), and hit-hungry jazz players (Freddie Hubbard), he crafts a bankable sound that sells—for jazz—amazingly well in the otherwise dour decade of the ‘70s. Maybe it was punk’s destruction of prog-rock’s pretensions, maybe it was the “Morning in America” election of Ronald Reagan, maybe it was the fact that the “Miles Davis Strain” of fusion was neither true to Davis’s more challenging vision nor radio or listener friendly in the long run but, by the mid-‘80s, the fusion that lived on was largely of the Creed Taylor school.

“Feels So Good”

. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while a purely instrumental track shoots to the top of the charts. In 1978, that song was “Feels So Good” by the once-jazz flugelhornist Chuck Mangione. Mangione, who had apprenticed with Art Blakey in the Jazz Messengers, was pursuing the pseudo-funk jazz path and hit with a sunny instrumental that featured an improvised solos over a near-disco funk groove. In post-Watergate America, the tune did feel good. In 1978 it competed against and outsold tracks like Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blue”, which was (after all) about a suicidal alcoholic dreamer though a superior piece of music. The future was there if you wanted to read it. Punk nihilism would only make it clearer for most people—it would be nice to have some easily digestible music that about nothing but feeling good.

A Radio Niche Is Born

The year after “Feels So Good”, a nice Jewish boy named Kenny Gorelick from Seattle joined the fusion band of keyboard player Jeff Lorber. Lorber—who was recording for Arista Records—started as a Chick Corea disciple playing complex fusion, but money in that was drying up. The young “Kenny G” played with plenty of sweet vibrato, and with the saxophone sound out front, the music sounded a bit more like that of a young jazz saxophonist named Grover Washington, Jr,—particularly 1975’s Mr. Magic (produced by Mr. Creed Taylor himself) and a 1980 hit with Bill Withers guesting on vocals, “Just the Two of Us”. It wasn’t long before label head Clive Davis—a man who surely knows what sells—had Kenny in studio on his own. The third album Senor G made hit even bigger than Mangione—with a hit called “Songbird” and a now-solidified concept: that lots of people really like this “smooth jazz”, which amounted to easy-going instrumental R’n'B now devoid of any real “jazz” content other than the use of a saxophone. The rest, as the foax might say, is bad-music history.

Ladies and Gentlemen—Mr. Bob James!

The Man

. Been paying attention? The bearded, math-professor-looking cat named Bob James was a moderately respectable jazz pianist out of Berklee whose first big gig was as musical director for Sarah Vaughan in the ‘60s. Not bad for a white kid from Marshall, MO. Got hired by one Creed Taylor as a house arranger for CTI in 1973. Indeed, he wrote the arrangements for Grover’s Mister Magic. The cats in the rhythm section for that date, in addition to Bob, were Gary King on electric bass and Harvey Mason on drums. Then, boom-boom, Bob made a few-a his own CTIs, he moved over to CBS, and lickety-split Bob himself had become a “star” in this odd new music that had not yet been dubbed “Smooth Jazz”. If you’ve never heard of him before, however, he is most famous for this: the theme song for the sit-com Taxi. Good show.

The Time

. The concert on this DVD was recorded in 1985—long after Mr. James had established himself as a force in this “contemporary” kind of jazz, three years after Kenny G’s first album, but just a year before “Songbird” would make “Smooth Jazz” into a radio format and supermarket favorite. By now, Bob had won some Grammys and other awards, some naming him as a “jazz” artist, others as a “pop instrumentalist”. Bob, it’s fair to say, did not care what words you put on his awards—he was employed, his beard looked great, and he even got the chance to make a classical-crossover album. This concert was part of the “Montreux Jazz Festival” at a time when Bob’s brand of crossover jazz or instrumental pop hadn’t yet become quite what Kenny G would soon turn it into.

The Band

. I’ve mentioned that Grover Washington, Jr. disc Mister Magic so often because, you see, it was really very good. Grover was no jazz master, but he had a knack for bring enough authentic jazz feeling to some genuinely grooving soul music, and—hey—the guy was from Philly, you know? Mister Magic felt just right it’s time: steamy authentic funk topped by a layer of sweet jazz harmony, with Grover riding the surface in open-throated style, like Hank Crawford or “Fathead” Newman from Brother Ray’s band, only somehow cooler. And not only did Missourian Bob James write the arrangements for that record, but the rhythm section was rounded out by the very guys who Bob had with him on tour in Europe during the summer of ‘85—Mssrs. King and Mason. Ladle on a highly Grover-ish sax player named Kirk Whalum and a largely forgettable guitarist (Dean Brown) and percussionist (Dennis Henderson) and you’ve got a fat slice of just-barely-pre-Smooth contemporary “jazz”. So, how does it sound twenty years on, after an entire generation has had to adjust the life under the blizzard of instrumental pop that Smooth Jazz would quickly become?

The Concert

The audience loved it

! They are eating this stuff with a big ol’ soup spoon!

The guitarist and percussionist are merely along for the ride

. Bob actually started his professional career in a piano trio, and that’s all you’ve got here. Some triangle shit from Henderson here, a doubling of the melody or a wah-wah passage from Brown there, whatever.

Bob James can play

! But already knew that. The cat is a very talented musician who likes to write snappy tunes like that Taxi theme and who can seriously heat up the ivories. Here, of course, his only sometimes heats up actual ivories, often favoring the fusion fav the Fender Rhodes electric piano. And this is one of the best reasons to check out this DVD: the Rhodes work is tasty and perfectly within the proper idiom for the instrument. Bob’s solos are often spare and rhythm at first, then they move toward ecstasy, and Rhodes is a great platform for this kind of playing, its tines vibrating like mad and setting up exciting overtones. On the acoustic piano, no slouch is Mr. James. On “Night Crawler” and “Unicorn”, honestly, he plays some adventurous, out stuff—pianism we could reasonably expect from a hip, modern cat like Jason Moran. In these moments, the concert generates absolute jazz heat, and please note the lack of quotation marks around the word ‘jazz’ in this sentence.

King and Mason set bad examples for the kids

. The rhythm section, for this kind of harmonically dolled-up pop/funk is Grade A beef. They are terrific. They pop and thump and trick out all kinds of syncopations, making them all sound slippery and natural and great. When they are doing this and Bob is dropping his left hand on some well-voiced chord while stabbing a solo riff with the right—you’re OK. But—oh the inevitability!—then the solo features for these guys come. A drum solo so indulgent it will make you long for the song “Wipe Out”. A bass solo that will amaze you only if you haven’t ever before heard a good electric bassist pull out all his tricks at once. And if this weren’t tedious enough, King then takes to the vocal mic for a version of Albert Collins “Lucille”. These moments are essentially unforgivable. But, on the Taxi theme of all places, they swing behind Bob’s acoustic like the consummate musicians they truly. This, of course, was the puzzlement of this era in jazz: great musicians played the easy stuff because it’s what brought audiences to their feet.

Kirk Whalum blows much heat, little light

. One of our players is ill tonight, ladies and gentlemen, so the part of Grover Washington, Jr. will be played by Kirk Whalum. The guy is very good. He wrote one of the tunes, and his tone on both tenor and soprano is respectable—no over-vibrato-ed G Force is he. His solos skitter and rise and circle and scratch, and there is much excitement and sweating and feverish blues to it all. But in the end, the guy just isn’t playing all that much interesting melody. The crowd is whipped up, you bet, but as you sit on your living room couch with the remote in hand, you’re excused if you fast-forward to the next piano solo.

And So

The conclusion to be drawn from our viewing is this: Skillfully crafted pop-jazz is not the end of the world and, in the hands of a crack band like this one, can entertain. And the theme to Taxi is indeed very catchy. The state of the art in 1985 was still pretty high. But twenty years on, we know that the artistic arrow was pointing down for this kind of music. If only it had stopped here, with this satisfactory but indulgent concert.

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