Bob James – One
(Music On Vinyl MOVLP655. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
A recent compilation album of music by Bob James was wittily titled Rhodes Scholar. And, sure enough, James is the man who arguably did as much to demonstrate the jazz capabilities of the Fender Rhodes keyboards, and render them fashionable, as any other single player. Now the admirable Music On Vinyl label has reissued his influential debut solo record on a great sounding 180gram LP.
The album One was originally released in 1974 on Creed Taylor’s CTI label. It was immediately popular, and the years have only served to increase its status — to the point where vintage specimens are becoming sought after collectors’ items. But if you’re looking for a copy on vinyl I’d suggest you opt for this reissue instead. CTI pressings in the 1970s were hit-and-miss and certainly never appeared on high quality, heavy-duty vinyl like this. Music On Vinyl have done a superb job, as immediately revealed by the wonderfully silent run-in groove and confirmed by the deep, sharp, resonant bass — just listen to the lingering fade-out on the first track, a low note that will give you a pleasant quiver in your solar plexus.
Musically, One is irresistible. The track Nautilus, in particular, is one of the most sampled songs in history (another one is Take Me to the Mardi Gras, also by Bob James, from his second album, naturally entitled Two — a suggestion for Music On Vinyl’s future release schedule). One was a lavish production, boasting a big ensemble including large string and brass sections and featuring top session musicians. It’s a Rolls-Royce of a record which has been given the sound quality it deserves. This vintage Rolls has been restored to its full gleaming glory.
The album opens with spooky jungle noises, chattering vocal effects and unsettling drum runs on Valley of the Shadows. The drummer here is none other than Steve Gadd, the same virtuoso who played live with Bob James at last year’s London Jazz Festival Barbican concert (REVIEWED HERE). Underlying all this is a subtle texture of atmospherics created by Bob James on keyboards before bursting vividly into blossom like jungle flowers, along with horn stabs and a fat blaze of chords from Richie Resnicoff’s taut guitar. I’d sat down to listen to this record expecting light hearted and catchy fusion. But Valley of the Shadows is unsettling and diabolical funk, reminiscent of Miles Davis, post-Bitches Brew. Grover Washington Jr.’s soprano sax is subtle and wheedling, like a miniature devil whispering innuendo in your ear. A redemptive brass and choral section finally opens a clearing in the jungle and lets the light in.
In the Garden is a startling reinterpretation of Pachelbel’s Canon in D — with a laid-back Nashville groove, of all things. It’s a mad stroke of genius. The mellow, flowing structure of the Canon is surprisingly conducive to this sort of approach with its heartfelt country feel, gorgeously achieved here by Eric Weissberg, of Duelling Banjos fame, on pedal steel guitar and Hugh McCracken on harmonica. Astonishing, cheeky, and so beautiful it gives you goose bumps.
Soulero is, of course, a soulful bolero and once again drummer Steve Gadd demonstrates his genius and his superhuman rhythmic capabilities. For as long as men like this exist, drum machines will remain redundant. Gadd provides the steadily rising and shifting sequence of escalator plates on which Bob James’s keyboards ride upwards. And, once again, Grover Washington Jr.’s soprano sax provides a sour- sweet commentary.
After a successful Country & Western take on Pachelbel, it’s perhaps not altogether surprisingly to hear Modest Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain refashioned as a piece of funky 1970s cop show hipness — Night on Starsky and Hutch (Bob James actually did work on the classic cop movie Serpico, and composed the theme for the TV sitcom Taxi). After the majestic orchestral forces brought to bear on some of the other tracks, it’s ironically amusing to have this symphonic favourite stripped back to what is largely a rhythm section funk work-out. The keyboards are crucial, of course, but Gary King’s bass, Gadd’s drums and Resnicoff’s guitar are the lifeblood of the piece, though it wouldn’t be a seventies cop show theme without some great brass (the horn section includes such luminaries as Jon Faddis and Thad Jones).
The much sampled Nautilus has an eerie science fiction edge, with icy chiming sound-fragments creating a crystal pattern on a winter’s window, before they’re obliterated by the glow of the keyboards drawing nearer, like headlights in the driveway. It has a recursive, hypnotic groove that winds back on itself in a musical Möbius strip while the noble classical flourishes of the string section provide a strangely appropriate setting for the futuristic, electronic and funky meat of the piece, with James’s keyboards almost vocalising. It becomes clear from this album that the really inspired nature of Bob James’s music lies in his ability to take this sort of audacious contrast and use it to fashion endlessly listenable music. No wonder that, after forty years, his stuff still sounds as new as tomorrow.