Bob James, whose piano playing evokes that moment when you walk from the heat and humidity outside into an air-conditioned room, has been heard around the world. But he still gets nostalgic when you ask him about his native Missouri.
It’s where he learned as a youngster that he could pull music out of the air. It’s where he learned the skills necessary to be in a band. It’s where he learned that music was the life he really wanted, and that knowledge set him off on a lifelong adventure.
And all those things feed into what he’s doing now as “semi-leader” of the cooperative band Fourplay, which is coming to the Folly Theater on Oct. 15. It features James with three other players who are at the top of the field on their respective instruments: bassist Nathan East, drummer Harvey Mason and guitarist Chuck Loeb. And you’ll rarely hear four strong individuals work together as smoothly as this quartet does.
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James grew up in Marshall, about 90 miles east of Kansas City.
“Kansas City might as well have been New York City to me,” he says. His father was a distinguished lawyer, and his mother tried to pass on her love of classical music. But the youngster preferred improvising at the piano to reading music. And jazz sneaked into his consciousness. “I remember a Stan Kenton record. Kenton made a big impression, though I didn’t know why at the time.”
There were dance bands around Marshall, and there was a shortage of piano players, so James was gigging as a teen, learning the elements of his art on the job. A summer job on an excursion boat at the Lake of the Ozarks brought him into contact with some serious St. Louis jazzers, and he expanded his jazz knowledge through them.
For college, he chose the University of Michigan, then left it, then went back. The decision to go back was important. He learned much on the active Detroit jazz scene and began playing steadily in Ann Arbor.
At this point, James had knowledge and the right attitude, but didn’t yet have the style for which he’s become famous. In the early ’60s, he first grabbed attention by playing free jazz.
“We were out on the fringe, exploring the limits,” he says. “It was one of my favorite times in my whole life, very adventurous, very fun. And it helped me decide what was important to me, even though I didn’t ultimately pursue that path.”
At a Notre Dame jazz festival competition in 1962, the judges included Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones, and they noticed this audacious band from Ann Arbor. Jones connected James to Mercury Records, and a short while later the first of many Bob James albums was on the market. And James was off to New York.
But there wasn’t much of a living to be made playing free jazz, so James made ends meet with jobs copying and arranging music — Jones was a useful connection here, too. The drawbacks of being on the musical fringe were becoming clearer to James. “I realized in that period that I love conventional music, too. I like romantic music. I like to swing and play bebop. I like all of it.”
Soon an important opportunity came when he was hired as pianist for singer Sarah Vaughan. Vaughan, he says, was very sensitive to what her rhythm section was doing.
“If it was grooving, the heights she could reach were constantly inspiring. … When I had the voicings and fills together, it drastically changed the way she would sing and perform. And more and more as I worked with her, I felt the power of that.”
It’s a lesson he’s never forgotten. “A major part of my love for the piano is as accompanist,” James says. “I love the supporting role just as much or more than I do the lead role. … I’ve used it in some of my best successes in the jazz field — the collaborations with David Sanborn and Earl Klugh. And of course Fourplay, where I’m as much sideman as leader.”
The four years with Vaughan showed James what he could do.
A few years later, the connection with Jones proved fertile once again. Jones invited him to play on sessions for the “Walking in Space” album. And Jones, no slouch as arranger, also asked James to make some arrangements. Producer Creed Taylor liked what he saw and heard, and in the ’70s James became part of the regular cast of characters at Taylor’s highly successful CTI label.
In this period, that air-conditioned James sound really emerged, in arrangements for Milt Jackson and Stanley Turrentine, on the all-time classic Grover Washington Jr. “Mister Magic” album and on many other CTI sessions. “I was happy being an arranger and all-around New York studio musician,” James says. “I wasn’t thinking about a solo career.”
But eventually, James was asked to make a CTI album of his own, and it was a surprise success, with a version of “Feel Like Makin’ Love” that charted, piggybacking on the success of Roberta Flack’s version.
That solo success, a decade after James’ first album, opened the way for a successful career that’s still flourishing. Those successes include the theme from the sitcom “Taxi”; work with Klugh and Sanborn that won Grammys; a big seller with Maynard Ferguson; and a series of other solo triumphs. Not to mention Fourplay.
Fourplay, a band of four studio wizards, emerged in 1991.
“It was serendipitous, a fluke, another way life unfolds in ways you didn’t expect,” James says. The inveterate collaborator was doing a series of sessions with Mason and guitarist Lee Ritenour. He was looking for a bassist, and independently, both Ritenour and Mason recommended East.
When those four got together, “I felt something special going on here. It was kind of instinctive.”
One day, on a break, James proposed that the four become a group — a real group, with its own sound, where the strong identities of the individuals don’t matter as much as the group’s overall sound. James’ connections at Warner Bros. Records led to a contract offer, the resulting record sold a million copies, and Fourplay was launched.
It’s been going ever since, despite two personnel changes, first guitarist Larry Carlton for Ritenour, more recently Loeb for Carlton. All six of them have stayed busy professionals.
“It’s taken a lot of compromising our schedules to make ourselves available — that’s been a big challenge,” James says. But the band has lasted through more than a dozen albums and several world tours and shows no sign of stopping.
That’s the story of Bob James, now 76 and a man with plenty of laurels to rest on, who’s still looking into new musical things, with Fourplay and on his own.
With Midwestern understatement, he sums it up: “It’s fun to keep trying.”
Bob James and Fourplay perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. Tickets are $20 to $50. Call 816-474-4444 or check FollyTheater.org. James will participate in a question-and-answer session for ticketholders at 7 p.m.
▪ This weekend brings the third annual Brookside Jazz Festival. The free event takes place Oct. 15 at the Christ Community Brookside Campus, 400 W. 67th St. It features drummer Ryan J. Lee’s group at 5 p.m., singer Lisa Henry at 6 p.m., the Jazz Disciples at 7 p.m. and the New Orleans-style Common Good Brass Band at 8 p.m. (and between the other sets). The brass band is a project of keyboardist John Brewer, the church’s worship pastor, who organized the event. Food and coffee will be available.
▪ The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., has tenor saxophonist Matt Otto running the Oct. 10 jam at 7 p.m. Trombonist Marcus Lewis’ quintet appears at 7 p.m. Oct. 13, bassist James Ward’s band is on at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 14, and guitarist Will Matthews brings his tough trio with organist Bobby Floyd and drummer Marty Morrison at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 15.
▪ Pianist Eddie Moore and his Outer Circle band play the next show on the jazz series at Johnson County Community College, at noon Oct. 11 in the Polsky Theatre.
▪ The Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., has drummer Danny Rojas, organist Everette DeVan, guitarist Matt Hopper and singer Eboni Fondren at 6 p.m. Oct. 9, followed by pianist Andrew Ouellette’s trio at 9:30 p.m.; drummer Todd Strait’s trio at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 10, followed by saxophonist Ernest Melton’s group at 9 p.m.; the group Dojo at 7 p.m. Oct. 11, followed by guitarist Joe Schoonover’s trio at 10:30 p.m.; Fondren with pianist Joe Cartwright at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 12, followed by organist Ken Lovern’s OJT at 9 p.m.; Melton, Lovern and Strait at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 13, followed by organist Chris Hazelton’s quartet at 9 p.m.; pianist Tim Whitmer at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 14, followed by the group Guitar Elation at 8:30 p.m. and Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 at 10 p.m.; and the Foundation 627 Big Band at 3 p.m. Oct. 15, followed by OJT at 6 p.m. and Rojas, DeVan and guitarist Danny Embrey at 9 p.m.
▪ There’s more organ jazz at the Ship, 1217 Union Ave. Dave Creighton’s group performs at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 12, and Greg Meise’s group performs at 9:30 p.m. Oct. 13.
Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751