Smooth jazz pioneer and inadvertent godfather of hip-hop break-beats, Bob James is about to add another accolade to his list of accomplishments. At this weekend’s 14th Tokyo Jazz Festival, the keyboardist will debut his first piano concerto.
While James has worn many hats in the past half-century, composing and performing for a symphony is untested waters. Interestingly, however, the project has a Japan-inspired genesis.
“Tokyo Jazz Festival is produced by a lady named Atsuko Yashima,” James says. “She has become a really good friend. She invited me (to the festival) and was the primary reason why I participated in a documentary four years ago related to the (Great East Japan Earthquake). I wanted to show my support and I ended up performing at a jazz festival in Iwate Prefecture.”
The film focused on James’ visit to the Iwate town of Ofunato, which was wiped out by a tsunami. The trip was the kind of event that forces a person to face their own mortality.
“Atsuko just started wondering whether I had any dreams or visions about musical things that I hadn’t done,” he continues. “I started talking to her about wanting to do some kind of larger form piece of music. It was still in the embryonic dream stage at that point, but it finally grew into composing a piano concerto.
“And she said, ‘If you do, I’ll get it performed at Tokyo Jazz Festival and I’ll get the Tokyo Philharmonic to be your orchestra.’ I was flabbergasted at that time, and it’s coming to fruition.”
In addition to performing the concerto, James will hit the stage with his widely popular quartet, Fourplay. It includes bassist Nathan East, drummer Harvey Mason and guitarist Chuck Loeb, who are all bigwigs in their own right.
While superstar jazz combos have peppered the scene sporadically over the years, Fourplay has a staying power that is rare in the genre. Having started in 1990, the quartet is celebrating its silver anniversary. James says that the foursome not being a one-off super-group has allowed for some organic growth.
“Our first album was successful and there was a lot of pressure to keep going. So during that time we did a project every two years, and in between we would go back to our solo careers,” he says. “And when we would come back to do the Fourplay stuff, we were bringing all our individual accomplishments to it. So it was a steadily building thing that lead us to this 25th anniversary.”
No artist likes labels, and the “smooth jazz” moniker is a particularly polarizing scarlet letter. While James has played straight-bop, deep-funk and even dabbled in the avant-garde, it’s the smoother sounds that he’s most associated with.
“You never like to be typecast. It did not come from musicians, it came from the business, it came from radio,” he explains. “But your music is played, so I don’t think we should get our noses too far out of joint or get rubbed too much the wrong way. The bottom line is that we make our music the best we can and we love to have people listen to it.”
James is an artist that even those who don’t think they know his work may still be familiar with. Funk aficionados will know his work as the in-house arranger at CTI Records in the early 1970s. Couch potatoes will know him from his iconic theme song for the American TV show, “Taxi.” And most righteously, hip-hop heads will know him from the myriad artists that have sampled his early solo records over the years: Run DMC, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and countless others have created entire tracks around his rhythms.
“I’m still shocked by the fact that it has continued as long as it has,” James says. “There was an aspect of rap in the early stages, where the business hadn’t caught up with it. And the people who were doing it didn’t have any clue that these samples violated copyrights. It was a problem. I’ve had to police and protect my music. But things have changed and I’ve had an awful lot of young people who are into hip-hop find out about my music who wouldn’t have found out about my music otherwise. It has been great.”
Bob James and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra featuring conductor Kevin Rhodes, Steve Gadd, Carlitos del Puerto and special guest Kazumi Watanabe will play the My Music, Your Music stage at the Hall on Sept. 5 at 12:30 p.m. The Tokyo Jazz Festival runs Sept. 4-6 at the Tokyo International Forum Hall A, the Tokyo International Forum Plaza and the Cotton Club in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Tickets cost between ¥3,000-¥18,000. For more information, visit www.tokyo-jazz.com or www.bobjames.com.
Weekend of must-sees
The Tokyo Jazz Festival takes place at three main venues and, as with previous years, aims to make a point of trying to offer up something for everyone.
One of the domestic acts to look out for this year is Primitive Art Orchestra, a contemporary trio that drives hard without ever flying off the rails. Fox Capture Plan is another good bet. Its futuristic spacecraft sound promises to add some much-needed youthful vitality to the weekend festival. And of course, lovers of mid-1960s hard-bop will find a lot to like with the Kyoto Jazz Sextet.
Trumpeter Terumasa Hino is set to play with guitarist Larry Carlton for a unique outing, and Hino’s more traditionalist flair should pair nicely with Carlton’s smooth-fusion to make for an unpredictable experience. Kyoto pianist and Mingus Big Band alum Junko Onishi will be sitting in with them as well.
The overseas contingent represents more than just American acts, with musicians coming from across the globe. Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen plays with a moody introspection that’s perfect for his nighttime slot. Canadian vocalist Barbra Lica sings sunny pop-infused jazz that mixes bouncy originals with the classics. Polish singer Anna Maria Jopek will mix old world sultriness with modern stylings. Australian pianist Paul Grabowsky plays with a grand cinematic sense that’s humorous without being hokey.
Of course, there are also the major players. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd and Jack DeJohnette will all be headlining for those who want to get the most for their festival buck. But it’s also a good chance to check out someone new.