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Beyond “Taxi”: Robinsongs Pairs Two LPs From Fender Rhodes Hero Bob James

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Bob James - Sign Two-FerCherry Red’s Robinsongs label, which has recently been responsible for reissues from jazz greats like Hank Crawford, Richard Tee and Ramsey Lewis, has turned its attention to producer-arranger-composer Bob James with the two-for-one release of his 1980 and 1981 albums, H and Sign of the Times.  The electric piano master has been making records as a leader since 1963 – his most recent is 2013’s Quartette Humaine with saxophonist David Sanborn – and this pair comes from the early years of his own Tappan Zee label (formed in1977).

The Missouri-born, Berklee-trained Bob James’ first outing as a leader, 1963’s Bold Conceptions for the Mercury label, remained his only such recording until 1974.  Instead of pursuing above-the-title stardom, James busied himself as a keyboardist and arranger, contributing an arrangement to Quincy Jones’ 1969 CTI record Walking in Space which first acquainted him with the Fender Rhodes electric piano.  James never planned on becoming so closely identified with the instrument, but his mastery of the Rhodes contributed mightily to the sound of 1970s crossover and fusion jazz styles.  James continued arranging and playing at Creed Taylor’s CTI, which spun off from its A&M Records roots into a true independent.  At CTI, he made significant contributions to sets from Grover Washington, Jr., Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, and outside of Taylor’s empire, James added color to recordings by Paul Simon and Neil Diamond and composed the wistful theme to television’s Taxi.  But his key roles as arranger and sideman led to his artistic rebirth on the 1974 album One.

Each year between 1974 and 1977, James issued a numbered release, from One to BJ4, arranging, conducting and playing both his own tunes and choice cover versions.  With 1977’s Heads, he parted ways with Taylor, establishing his own Tappan Zee banner under the aegis of Columbia Records.  He was rewarded when the album became his first Jazz No. 1 LP.  Also serving for a time in A&R at Columbia, James continued to turn out records like clockwork.  He also took along the masters to his first four albums and saw to their reissue at Tappan Zee.  H marked his first album of the 1980s.

Hit the jump for details on both albums included on this reissue, including track listing and order links!

James’ sidemen on H included first-call players including bassist Gary King, drummer Buddy Williams, Hiram Bullock and Bruce Dunlap on guitars, plus CTI alumni (Airto Moreira on percussion, Grover Washington, Jr. on soprano saxophone and tin whistle, Ralph MacDonald on percussion, Randy Brecker of The Brecker Brothers Band on trumpet) and even a handful of players poached from Columbia artist Billy Joel (Liberty DeVitto on drums, Doug Stegmeyer on bass, David Brown on guitar).  James provided three original songs for the album (“Snowbird Fantasy,” “The Walkman” and “Thoroughbred”), arranged a classic French folk song (“Shepherd’s Song” from the Auvergne region of France) and picked a top-notch pop song to cover (Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren’s “Reunited,” the 1978 No. 1 hit for Peaches and Herb).

For follow-up Sign of the Times, James teamed with Rod Temperton as co-arranger.  James collaborated on string and horn charts with Temperton who also handled rhythm and synthesizer arrangements.  James couldn’t have picked a stronger collaborator; Temperton was already well-known for providing three songs (including the title track and “Rock with You”) to Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall; he would go on to compose “Thriller” and more for The King of Pop’s next LP.  Each man composed three tracks on Sign of the Times, and again, the album’s personnel consisted of all-stars.  Buddy Williams was joined on drums by the ubiquitous John Robinson and Rick Marotta.    Bruce Dunla, Steve Khan and Eric Gale shared the guitar chair.  Ralph MacDonald and Airto returned on percussion, with Grover Washington, Jr. on tenor saxophone. Gary King and Marcus Miller handled bass.  The background vocals team featured Patti Austin, Vivian Cherry, Yvonne Lewis, and Luther Vandross.  With its cutting-edge production and arrangements that alternated between mellow and truly funky, Sign of the Times proved that James’ brand of fusion could be as relevant to the 1980s as it had been to the 1970s.  James continues to this day to create jazz settings that are both accessible and musically sophisticated.

Robinsongs’ two-for-one release has been remastered by Alan Wilson and annotated by Lois Wilson.  It’s available now at the links below!

Bob James, H/Sign of the Times (Robinsongs CDMRED 627, 2014) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

  1. Snowbird Fantasy
  2. Shepherd’s Song
  3. Brighton by the Sea
  4. The Walkman
  5. Thoroughbred
  6. Reunited
  7. Hypnotique
  8. The Steamin’ Feelin’
  9. Enchanted Forest
  10. Unicorn
  11. Sign of the Times
  12. Love Power

Tracks 1-6 from H, Tappan Zee JC 34622, 1980
Tracks 7-12 from Sign of the Times, Tappan Zee FC 37495, 1981

Written by Joe Marchese

August 13, 2014 at 10:16

Posted in Bob James, News, Reissues

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