Interview: Jazz Pianist Bob James

In his 45-year career, smooth jazz composer and pianist Bob James has produced more than 40 albums. He may be best known for “Angela”, the theme from the TV sitcom, “Taxi”.

He’s collaborated with musicians from all genres, winning two Grammys in the process.

And he’s a favourite of hip-hop and R&B artists, who have sampled many of his tracks in their works.

“Nautilus” from 1974 is probably the most sampled piece in hip-hop history, having been “borrowed” by Slick Rick and Puff Daddy among many others.

Five years ago, Bob James began collaborating with five students of traditional Chinese instruments that he’d met at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. They became “The Angels of Shanghai”, with whom he performed in Hong Kong last week.

The Works’ Ben Pelletier spoke to him.

Ben Pelletier
We’re here with Bob James who is part of the lineup of the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival. Welcome to the programme, and welcome indeed to Hong Kong.

Bob James
Thank you Ben. Very excited to be here.

Ben Pelletier
I should say welcome back to Hong Kong. You were here with Fourplay earlier.

Bob James
Last year. We had a wonderful time. Unfortunately in the music business we are always in places for too short a time. I was here for one day. Of course you get to see the hotel, the concert hall and the airport, but you don’t really get a chance to do the sightseeing I would love in this beautiful city.

Ben Pelletier
This time, with the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, you have a project you’ve put together over the past several years, “The Angels of Shanghai”. Can you tell me how the project came about, and what the project entails?

Bob James
It’s been a five year adventure, and this actual trip to China is the culmination a of really wonderful life experience that I have had, that came about almost by accident. I was at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music five years ago with a Japanese friend who was doing some research about opening up a Chinese division of the record company. And I had no plan to get actively involved in any kind of recording because I was very busy with other stuff. But I had a really magical day, first becoming acquainted with traditional Chinese instruments. I humbly admit that I knew nothing about this music prior to that visit. But they had arranged for some of the best of the students to demonstrate some of the instruments to us, and I was supposed to give some advice to my Japanese friend. The bottom line is I just fell in love with the sound and with the fantastic musicians. We bonded. We had one of these incredible examples of music being the universal language. Because they knew nothing about my music, they were meeting me for the first time, I had never performed in China, so there was no advance hype about it. We just sat down and started making music. I couldn’t speak any Chinese. I only found out later that they were quite good with English but they were very shy about it. So we didn’t have any verbal communication at all. But to my amazement they were totally open to my improvising, starting up some new hybrid experiment. And that’s how we started.

Ben Pelletier
Did you end up writing music fresh for this project or adapting previous compositions?

Bob James
It was mostly new music that happened, but I also adapted a few older compositions for instrumentation. I was given some very good advice that I think it would be …  since the project was so different … what I was basically trying to do was combine American jazz and traditional Chinese music and form this hybrid east-west thing. And I didn’t know what it was going to turn out to be, but it was intriguing to me from the very beginning. But some advice that I got was that, in addition to making completely new music, it would be interesting to my fans if I took music that was familiar to them already and rearranged it with this new sound to see how it would sound in the new version.

So I took what was probably my most recognized theme which is a theme from a TV show that was very successful in the States called “Taxi”. The theme song is a piece called “Angela”, which was another coincidence because I ended up calling this group “The Angels..” and the name “Angela” is derived from “angel”. So many, many coincidences. But this “Angela” theme is very well known because of all the exposure it got from the television. So I got a completely new arrangement of that. And actually one of the most exciting times during the project was when I first played that theme for them. I could tell immediately that they responded and loved it, and I thought that was very flattering and very nice. And as I was playing for them, I realized that the entire first part of the melody uses the exactly the same mode or scale that is in their traditional Chinese folk music that they play all the time. So they felt very at home with this theme.

And as I was listening to it, I thought why did I even write it for a TV series that is based on New York City cab drivers? It really has nothing to do with Chinese folk music. But now all of the sudden, this thing unfolds …  and it was as if it was meant to be somehow.

Ben Pelletier
Was it surprising to you how readily these musicians adapted to improvising in a Jazz format?

Bob James
I think that was the most inspiring thing. And that led me to believe that I could make this into a project that makes sense as a jazz … some kind of a hybrid jazz project. Because I discovered on that first day, that they were totally open and free about the idea of improvising, which is a big deal to me, because that’s at the very root of what I have always loved about the jazz idiom. It’s that it’s unpredictable, you never know what’s going to happen. The most exciting moments are the times when you use your techniques to respond to something that happens instantly. If you have this Chinese sound coming back to it, you try to respond to it and react to it, in a musical way. And they were so fantastic at being able to do that. And I would play something in my jazz style and they would come back to me, with it reinterpreted by them instantly into their Chinese version of it. I was not asking them to play jazz, but I was asking them to enter into that kind of spirit. And they were just great. And we’ve had a wonderful time ever since. Every time I get together with them, it’s more of the same.

Ben Pelletier
You’ve never stood in one place with your career, musically or otherwise. What comes next. And how do you stay motivated to move to new areas?

Bob James
Well, age I guess happens to all of us, and I’m just trying to refuse to let it slow me down. I’ve had the good fortune to have pretty good health. I love what I do. I’m very much unhappy if I am away from my piano too far. It’s just part of my body now. So I’m still always wanting to be doing something. And I’ve had a real basic feeling that jazz, philosophically, is an idiom that needs to keep changing. There are some people in our area of music who believe that there is a more pure way, or more correct way to play jazz and I’m not one of those people. I don’t think there’s any correct way to play it. I think it changes daily because the next day when you play an improvised solo. I believe you should be responding to what’s going on around you. And when it comes to the Far East, my mindset is different from when I’m in New York city. So whatever comes up in 2009 it’s going to be related to that same basic philosophy.

I just ran into an old friend who I think is one of the most brilliant jazz artists in the world, and one of the few jazz artists who have specialized in playing the clarinet in recent years. Back in the swing era, many many years ago, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw – some of the great jazz artists – made the clarinet a very popular jazz instrument, but somehow it’s been usurped by the soprano sax and you rarely hear jazz clarinet anymore. But Eddie Daniels plays it like a dream, and he is just a phenomenal artist and we rediscovered each other. I had known him many many years ago in New York, but I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but we bumped into each other at the Chicago airport about a month ago and almost immediately started talking about collaborating and doing a project.

So that’s one that’s in the back of my mind, but we both understand the fact that the music business is drastically different than it was when I was first making records. And the economy has had a major impact on us, as it has on anybody else, so most record companies, I feel, are very conservative and very reluctant to take on any CD music projects. There’s a major marketing plan, a touring plan. They put so much baggage on the idea of making records that it’s frustrating for me. Because I had a period of time for 15-20 years when I was very fortunate to be in an environment where, when we had any kind of good creative ideas, we’d just go in and make a record. And maybe we’d end up touring, maybe we wouldn’t. But the record would exist, and it flowed economically. Now it’s more complicated than that. So I really don’t know where the support from a company would be next year.

I would for example love to do “Return of Angels of Shanghai”. Now that we know each other so well, it would be fantastic to see what music we can make now that we’ve broken the ice, and gotten through the start up phase. But whether or not we will get support from the record company, we don’t know yet. 

Ben Pelletier
You talked records and touring, and the “Angels of Shanghai” album came out a few years ago. Have you noticed any differences in the way people either react to the album or react live between the West and doing that same material in Asia?

Bob James
The US audience are much more confused, but at the same time, if I get them into the theatre, they are almost without exception, very intrigued. They don’t believe it at first. How can you have these five weird instruments that they’ve never seen before combined with the jazz quartet? When I talk about it, the hardest thing is to publicize this kind of concert and to get the publicity people and concert promoters to imagine that it could work. And yet on the US tour, without exception, when we started performing, I could always tell that the audience are really intrigued when they physically see us on stage and how much fun we are having, and they can begin to understand how similar in many ways the Chinese instruments are to our history.

It was a different experience with the Asian audience. We performed in Japan, we performed in Korea, Thailand, now finally here in China. But throughout Asia, the traditional instruments historically are all kind of similar, so it’s not as much of a surprise for Asian audiences to hear these instruments.

Ben Pelletier
After your all too brief stay with us, you are heading to Shanghai, with the Angels of Shanghai, sort of appropriately bringing this music to the mainland for the first time, but sort of rounding things up, taking things full circle. How do you anticipate it will go down with a Chinese audience?

Bob James
I’m smiling as you even bring this up because you are absolutely right, it is full circle. I am very proud of this project. I went from being totally naïve about Chinese traditional music and in many ways about China in general, because I’d never visited here, I’ve never performed in China. I just feel that we are in this new global community and it’s so important for us to get to know each other better. And if, even in a small way, I can be a good will ambassador … I didn’t set out to do it that way, it certainly wasn’t anything pretentious like that. I just love the idea of making this music. But over the five years I’ve done it I’ve had the chance to meet, and become good friends with, extremely talented young, fresh Chinese musicians that have taught me much more than I know I have taught them. But we bonded. We learned from each other’s cultures. It’s been a fantastic experience. And I’m so excited to go to Shanghai, their home, and I know it will be a friendly audience because I have a feeling that many of their family and friends are going to be there to celebrate this great occasion, that after five years I am finally having the opportunity to perform in mainland China.

Ben Pelletier
Well, all the best with that and I look forward to your next project as well.

Bob James
Thank you Ben. It’s been a pleasure.

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