At a young 83 years, the esteemed Grammy-winning American pianist, composer, and producer, Bob James, defies retirement norms by persistently forging innovative paths in music. With a remarkable career spanning 36 solo albums, his latest endeavor, "Jazz Hands," is his third album with the audiophile label EvoSound. The album is another aural treat to the ears that follows the path of sonic ecstasy and can be found on Hybrid stereo SACD, MQA-CD, and 180g Vinyl.
Since the early 1970s, Bob James, who first rose to fame at producer Creed Taylor's CTI label, has built a reputation as a musical alchemist. He skillfully blends diverse elements from jazz, soul, funk, classical music, and even hip-hop, crafting musical gold that's truly one-of-a-kind. Renowned for pushing musical boundaries, his latest album takes his journey of sonic experimentation to unprecedented heights. James comments, “Jazz Hands is probably the most eclectic album I’ve done, there’s not really one specific genre, and there were a lot of different musicians involved at different periods.” Now, this brilliant album has just been nominated for the 66th annual Grammy Awards in the category of “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.”
The album was primarily recorded during the Covid pandemic and produced by James and Sonny Abelardo. Briming with musical diversity, James’ effortlessly transitions from vibrant jazz-funk workouts to gentle cinematic soundscapes, and even groovy hip-hop beats. Adding to the album's allure is the captivating contribution of the soulful Atlanta vocalist, CeeLo Green, renowned for his part in the well-known US R&B duo Gnarls Barkley, famous for the global sensation "Crazy" in 2006. Collaborating with James, Green co-wrote the title track of "Jazz Hands," seamlessly blending elements of jazz, R&B, and hip-hop into a sensuous musical fusion. The bass is undeniably rich, and the rhythmic groove strikes with pizzaz. Surely this will get listeners out of their seat.
However, let’s click back to the energetic opening track “Mambalicious” that showcases his young touring trio, consisting of bassist Michael Palazzolo and drummer James Adkins. James’s piano strikes with pure tingling resilience that is set comfortably into a reverberant space. String synthesizer parts rise from the left and drums spread out across the stereoscape with the bass smoothly holding it all down in the middle.
Advancing forward, James demonstrates his remarkable versatility, offering a smokey blues ballad on “The Otherside” composed by Sonny Abelardo, an evocative Iberian reverie titled "Come into My Dream" featuring the mellifluous saxophone artistry of smooth jazz legend Dave Koz that leans into fusion and progressive styles that has been arranged in a magnificent form taking listeners on a complex journey. Additionally, one can find an intriguing fusion of jazz improvisation with hip-hop drum loops in the fun track "Mophead." Across all of the songs transparency is remarkable with each instrument distinct and directly filled with life. Dynamics punch through where needed, and chill down sections are a soft reminder of the emotion James brings to his playing.
One of my favorite songs on the album is the playful “Beerbohm,” a homage to James’ long-time friend and musical ally, uber-producer Quincy Jones. Featuring Adkins’ drum work on this piece that reminds me of the sound of Return to Forever. In a modern twist there are non-standard percussive parts tying into the rhythm of the song, melded into an otherwise classic acoustic jazz song. The stereoscape is wide, and each instrument is distinct, imbuing a clarity that I have come to expect from James’ releases on EvoSound.
Likely a surprise to long-time fans, James collaborates with the legendary hip-hop turntablist and producer DJ Jazzy Jeff on “That Bop,” a thumping dance track overlain with elegant piano hooks. Jeff is known for his partnership with rapper Will Smith in DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, pioneers of the first rap Grammy and hits like 1987's "A Touch of Jazz," which famously sampled James' classic "Westchester Lady."
James also collaborated with Rachel Kwag, a composer/arranger he regards as his "creative consultant" and a close friend he met at a South Korean music school. Their partnership began with the album "On Vacation" in 2020, featuring German trumpeter Till Brönner. James values Kwag's objective perspective, which helps him refine his musical direction, saying, "I like having somebody objectively listening to my music to give me insight and help me focus on the direction." This collaboration led to their joint work on "The Secret Drawer" song.
“Sea Goddess” closes the album with a definitively unique sound characteristics from the remaining studio tracks. Written specifically for a jazz cruise, the song was recorded with an all-star band of LA session players while on the ship and becomes extremely evident that it is a live performance when the audience begins to clap. Especially compared to the balance of the album, careful listeners may notice that the base is somewhat flabby, and the piano lacks the effervescent vibe along with the drums that spread widely across the room. The addition of the sax and guitar parts just bring listeners closer to a full reckoning of its pure uniqueness compared to everything else heard up to this point. Yet, while I say all of this, the sonic match overall is excellent and these subtle aural differences in the texture will likely remain as such to many listeners, simply subtle.
“My life is music, and as long as I’m able to play it, I’ll keep feeling young,” James says, happily reassuring his many fans that retirement is not on his radar just yet. "Jazz Hands" stands proudly among James' finest works, alongside classics like "One," "Two," "Grand Piano Canyon," and the recent "Espresso." A harmonious blend of classic and contemporary, it exemplifies his artistic brilliance, showcasing the pianist at his peak. Despite his seven decades in the music industry, James remains a relevant, cutting-edge artist. Recommended for jazz fans and audio music enthusiasts seeking excellent sounding releases.
The album is available in a few formats: as a 180g vinyl LP* (which includes a special limited edition Solid Blue Colored pressing, as a Hybrid Stereo SACD, and as an MQA-CD editions.
Released September 15, 2023.
Hybrid Stereo SACD, MQA-CD, or 180g Vinyl, plus lossless download, or via streaming platforms.
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About the Author
Wesley is a lifelong music enthusiast. He started his career in the recording industry in New York City as an audio engineer, producer, and studio manager. Subsequently he toured across America as a guitarist with the short-lived band Land's Crossing. After many years in the technology sector and amassing a substantial vinyl and CD collection, he delved into immersive audio and created Hi-Res Edition to share with other listeners about the sound quality and discrete mixes available on many formats. He recently upgraded his system to 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos and continues to seek out and share about the best sounding releases.