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Bob James produces smooth jazz with rough edges at the Folly Theater

Bob James grew up in Marshall, about 90 miles east of Kansas City.
Bob James grew up in Marshall, about 90 miles east of Kansas City.

Bob James opened the new season of the Folly Jazz Series with a surprisingly cautious concert on Saturday. The inventive pioneer of smooth jazz and his three piece backing band focused on conventional sounds at the Folly Theater.

A demonstrative contingent representing James’ hometown of Marshall, Missouri, was among the audience of about 800 that heard him ruminate on styles that predated his groundbreaking innovations.

A dreamy revival of “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” the Roberta Flack hit James covered on his influential 1974 album “One,” was one of only two selections on which he exhibited his famed prowess on electric keyboards. A polite recasting of his disco-era hit “Westchester Lady” resembled funk in formal wear.

An inauspicious rendering of “Blues Down Under” was among a handful of numbers that did little more than demonstrate James’ fluency in the sort of mainstream piano jazz that he would have encountered in his youth.

Two reminisces accentuated the nostalgic tone. James paid homage to a pair of keyboardists who inspired him to become one of the most successful crossover jazz artists of the 1970s and 1980s. A lively rendition of Horace Silver’s “The Jody Grind” revealed James’ fealty to the venerated composer and bandleader. Like Silver, James underpins memorable melodies with intoxicating jazz-based rhythms. A propulsive reading of “Nardis” recognized Bill Evans, the pianist whose lyrical artistry has awakened generations of musicians to the boundless possibilities of improvisation.

The performance originally was billed as a performance by James’ all-star band Fourplay, but James was instead backed by the Detroit based trio of guitarist Perry Hughes, bassist Michael Palazzolo and drummer Ron Otis. Hughes, a scintillating guitarist who outshone James on a version of “Mister Magic,” plays in the soulful tradition of Grant Green. James, an admirably amenable accompanist, repeatedly encouraged Hughes to attain dizzying heights.

“Feel Like Makin’ Love” and a lovely reading of “Angela,” James’ wistful composition that served as the theme song of the television comedy “Taxi,” were the only pieces executed in the vein of James’ most popular work.

Attending Saturday’s concert was akin to securing a reservation for a restaurant run by a celebrated French chef only to discover that the evening’s menu consists solely of steak and potatoes. While undeniably delectable, James’ performance wasn’t entirely satisfying.

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