Wednesday, September 23, 2020

CD Review: Bob James - Once Upon A Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions

Bob James
Once Upon A Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions

The Eric Dolphy boxset Musical Prophet (released in 2018) solved a mystery over a track that first appeared on the album Other Aspects. "Jim Crow" was the opening track on that collection of unreleased Dolphy works, in the early 1990s, presenting his reeds together with a piano trio in an avant garde piece complete with operatic vocals. 

Other Aspects didn't credit the personnel on the recording. That information came to light on Musical Prophet, which listed the proper title of the piece, "A Personal Statement." The more revealing factoid was that the composer and pianist of the group was none other than Bob James, who would go on to become the unofficial king of Smooth Jazz. (If you've ever watched an episode of Taxi, you know his opening theme song, "Angela," which probably makes him the most heard jazz musician on television, aside from Mister Rogers Neighborhood pianist Johnny Costa.)

"A Personal Statement" sounds today like a curious time piece, combining free jazz, new music and opera along with a Message, delivering it all with little subtlety. But it proves that James had a keen sense of adventure during his college days and wasn't just traveling the yellow brick road to pop-jazz stardom.

The sessions on Once Upon A Time happened two years after "A Personal Statement." James, by then living in New York, was approached by a Columbia University freshman and budding engineer named George Klabin. He wanted to record the pianist and play the results on his radio show at WKCR-FM. They ended up recording two sessions with two different trios, which varied a bit in their approach. An honorable man who launched Resonance years later, Klabin never let the recordings slip out of his care, so they're being released on his label for the first time.

The first four tracks were made in January of that year at Columbia's Wollman Auditorium. Bassist Larry Rockwell and drummer Robert Pozer complete the trio. After a straightforward, brisk reading of "Serenata," the group pushes forward on the other tracks. "Once a Upon a Time," a James original rather than the ballad done by Tony Bennett and others, has a fairly loose structure, allowing the group to toy with the space, never leaping off into freedom but enjoying the possibilities. 

Joe Zawinul's "Lateef Minor 7th" introduces pre-recorded tapes of piano string noise, breaking the tempo apart. The sound of the tapes - seeping in from the background, as if the player was onstage with them instead of run directly into the recording system - gives the music a surreal layer. James frequently blurts out nonsense words, like a beat poet. Thankfully they're not cutesy, insipid or an attempt to incorporate the music into language. Free though it is, it still has a lyrical quality, even with James gets heavy at the piano. "Variations" begins as a pastoral solo piece but James is soon joined by more tapes and his bandmates join him. The open space and quick exclamations recall a George Crumb composition. The piano melody returns, and its pensive quality makes the whole thing feel like it could have worked as a soundtrack. 

That same year, James would record Explosions for ESP-Disk', a deal which came about supposedly after Bernard Stollman heard these recordings, though some of those music-and-tape combinations got a little heavy handed. (A few years later, a similar musique concrete experiment for Phil Ochs' "The Crucifixion" rendered one of the folk singer's most intense songs unlistenable, in an attempt to add apocalyptic effects to the lyrics.)

When James and Klabin returned to Wollman that October, the pianist had a new rhythm section and a more streamlined attitude. Bill Wood (bass) and Otis Clay (drums) were in the trio, who sound a bit closer perhaps to a Bill Evans group. They tear through Sonny Rollins' "Airegin" at a rapid pace without forsaking any of the tune's nuances. The ballad "Indian Summer" feels a little too relaxed without as much spark carrying through the wide open spaces. Miles Davis' "Solar" and the uncredited "Long Forgotten Blues" give Wood and Clay a chance to stretch out a little more, the latter adding a subtle groove akin to Vernell Fournier in Ahmad Jamal's group - not aggressive but grooving with subtlety.

The second session really seems to capture James at a crossroads. He got the avant garde out of his system with the first session and Explosions, as was now playing it straight. Of course, that's oversimplifying it, but the second session coincided with the start of four years with Sarah Vaughn as her music director, a band which included Clay on drums. 

Because this album comes from Resonance, it features a deluxe package with a 40-page booklet loaded with an interview with James, an excerpt of an interview with Robert "Cleve" Pozar and recollections by Klabin and pianist Makoto Ozone. James makes an interesting observation in his interview. He hadn't heard these tapes in decades and was surprised to hear his younger self playing some piano licks that still factor into his music more than half a century later. It goes a long way toward showing that this music was just as much a part of him as what he played in the ensuing years, even if "Angela" sounds light years removed "Lateef Minor 7th." 

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