Interview by Mary Bentley
SmoothViews (SV): Before I get started on the music, I'd like to ask you a little bit about the wine and the art. How did you get into the wine business?
Bob James (BJ): This whole adventure in music has led to a lot of unpredictable things. That may be one of the most unpredictable. It grew out of my hobby of visual art that I have had for a long time. I had a small exhibit, mostly family and friends. There was a little greeting card type of thing that I made with a couple of my art images on it that was also kind of a promotional brochure for this exhibit. I had them with me on this plane trip when I went to Europe. On the way back, I met this man. I gave him this greeting card which also had my address on it. He really liked the art. He came up with this idea that it would look good on wine labels. He was in the beverage business but had not been in the wine business specifically before that. He eventually approached me with this idea. One thing led to another. He invited me to come down to Australia to visit a lot of vineyards to make a decision about what our first wine would be. The concept was not that I would have a winery. Many people get confused about that. The concept was that there would be this collection of wines,
hopefully from all around the world… that, due to my traveling, my opportunities to visit a lot of different exotic places… that I [could] kind of pick and choose. It's sort of like inviting people into my home wine cellar.
That was the rough concept. We started in the Barossa Valley of Australia. We picked three different wines there – a Shiraz, a chardonnay, and a cabernet. Before I knew it, we were off and running. Over the last three years it's really been an interesting thing. Usually we feature the wines in association with one of my performances. Last year, there were three big jazz festivals that featured my wine as sort of the official wine for the festival. It was getting a lot of visibility at the Catalina Island Jazz Festival, the Rehoboth, and there was one in Milwaukee [Kettle Moraine].
So all of this is very new. I'm not totally hands-on with the company because I told the man from the beginning that I already had my hands full with the music and the only way it would work for me is if somehow or another they could conceive that anything that was required from me would be in association with places I would already be going to perform. They've been very good about respecting that.
The company is a Mom and Pop operation of husband and wife, Christopher and Madeline Payne, and we've really had a lot of fun with it so far. The collection has grown. We have varietals – two from New Zealand and one from the Tuscany region of Italy and we're about to add a Riesling from Germany. We hope to just keep going in that way with having different countries and different varietals represented as we keep the collection growing. Each one of them theoretically will have a piece of my art as the label. So, the incredible thing about it, from my standpoint, looking back on it is the way things take on a life of their own. Sometimes it's just a matter of having the courage, the gall, or whatever to go public and see what happens. It's usually very unpredictable.
I think very much the same thing happens with music. My most famous music piece, for example, which has stayed with me for over 20 years, the theme from the TV show “Taxi,” also came about very much as a fluke. It was the result of one of my records being in the collection of one of the producers of the series. He had in his mind the kind of sound that they wanted to have for the series. They started experimenting with using my music that I'd already done. I didn't even know this was going on. Eventually they approached me about doing new specific music for the series. It wasn't anything that I sought out. It just happened.
SV: It's funny what you say about the similarity between art forms. It seems that people who are creative in one area are often creative in other areas too.
BJ: I think so. I think it's a part of the brain that's maybe more active in our area than it is for other people, and you choose an instrument or you choose a specialty, but very often that chooses you more than you choose it just because of your education and when you start into it. In my case, I started very, very young, and at the encouragement of my mother I was taking piano lessons. It was almost inevitable, but whatever my interest in art was it was always there, but it took a back seat to music. I have really enjoyed these last few years of digging deeper into that and trying to imagine what the similarities are and how one image can inspire music, or maybe a piece of music can inspire a work of art too.
SV: You are a master collaborator because you've done great collaboratio ns with a lot of people – most notably Kirk Whalum, Earl Klugh, and David Sanborn. Who else would you like to work with or is there someone you'd like to work with again?
BJ: Wow, that's a great question. I think about it all the time. I have always felt that I had a pretty good instinct for being an accompanist. I really like accompanying another artist. I spent five years as Sarah Vaughn's musical director. It was like another college education for me; learning the nuances of how to be supportive to an artist of that caliber and realizing that I could do it, feeling the power of it [and] feeling in many ways like its more fun than it is being out front having all the responsibility of being a solo artist. I've always liked it. I've always had a feeling for it. I don't think it's coincidental that my most successful recordings have been collaborations of one kind or another, including the concept of forming the group Fourplay, knowing it was the opportunity to have three other solo artists join in with me where I only had that one part – 25% role of responsibility. A lot of the time I could function as the accompanist, which is what I like to do. I'm always looking for new people to collaborate with in that way. The times that I had the opportunity to work with young people is even more interesting because they bring something fresh to me that I can learn from. Hopefully, I bring some experience to them that they can learn from too.
One name comes to mind immediately. It has to do with my having admired this guy so much recently... Pat Methany, who I think is really at the top level of creative artists who are working in our genre. I don't know of anybody who consistently has made such inspired music as he has over the years. I've always found him to be courageous. He's tried so many different things. He combines a lot of things that I find interesting. He's a virtuoso. He's also accessible melodically when he plays. I could go on and on about it, but as much as I have admired him, and as close as he is to my genre, where most of the people in one way or another I think that highly about, I've at least encountered them and had a chance to work with them. In this case, it's only been a few meetings where we've stumbled into each other, but I've never actually made any music with him. I don't know that I ever will because he certainly has a fantastic piano player that has been his long-time collaborator, Lyle Mays. But you never know. Every time I see him I kind of drop the subtle hint (laugh) that it would be fun sometime if our fate was to turn out that we could do something together.
SV: I know you've done work with your daughter. She sang on a few of your albums.
BJ : It's been awhile since we performed together. Because her husband is also a musician, they perform together but haven't really made a collaboration record in a few years. That's another thing I would love to reactivate. We've gotten sort of halfway through a Christmas album, which is very, sort of a family-oriented thing which we're trying hard to finish up. I'm not sure whether we're going to get it finished in time for this Christmas or not, but that's one ongoing project. We have it going with the two of us. She's still singing, sounding better than ever.
SV: Has working with your daughter made the process easier or harder, as opposed to working with someone you're not related to, or don't know very well?
BJ: I think it's more complicated because it's all of that. We definitely sense an instinctive family thing, particularly when I'm working with her [as a] duo, her singing and me playing the piano. The way we can phrase together, do things we don't even have to talk about or rehearse or anything. It just instinctively happens because she listened to all of the music that was going on in our household when she was growing up. We just have an awful lot in common. So in that way, there's nothing like it; nobody that I've ever collaborated with that I have that strong distinctive rapport with. The fact that we live in two different worlds, that's where things become more complex. Hillary has never thought of herself as a jazz singer as such. She's, I think, most comfortable in some related genre... more input by the theater, pop music, and different areas. Just from a father's point of view, I felt it's very important to not push the family thing too far – let her have her own life and make her own choices about that. Her husband is a piano player, and a very good one. They play together quite a lot and they compose music together. It doesn't make sense for Papa to jump in there too much and get in their way. It's better to just be supportive of it.
SV: You did the Four Hand Piano Tour with Keiko Matsui a few years ago. You explained it as being an old, 19th century way of presenting music. What made you try this?
BJ: I've always loved it. I was just fascinated by it. I had a stack of four hand piano music. It's fun stuff to do at home. That was really the spirit of it. Before the era of recordings, where you could go buy a recording of the NY Philharmonic and listen to Beethoven's symphonies at home or other orchestral music, composers very often would write arrangements of their music for piano because people had pianos in their home. There was no such thing in the 19th century as a phonograph, but playing the piano in the home, orchestral music was sort of beyond the scope of one pianist being able to do it. So somehow these arrangers came up with the idea that if you had two people sitting there you could cover a lot more territory. You'd have somebody at the top end of the piano playing the piccolo part and somebody doing the double bass down at the lower end, all at the same time. So, the answer to your question, why revive it? This happened a little in a fluky way too. I had a project that I had committed to which ended up being called Dancing on the Water.
I was kind of feeling lonely. I've never really been too happy being a solo performer. Jazz to me has always been a group experience and I love having a great bass player and drummer playing with me. In solo mode, there's no place to hide, so on that project I hedged my bets and chose the opportunity to invite several guest artists to join me, specifically pianists, where I don't normally have the opportunity to have another pianist playing on one of my albums. I chose these two very different artists, Joe Sample and Keiko Matsui, to be my guests – never having performed with either one of them, but being an admirer of their music for different reasons. I just thought it would be an interesting encounter.
In the case of the Keiko encounter, I wrote two pieces in this four hand genre. I loved the challenge of working with that as an arranger because you have to figure out all of these things about keeping the hands from colliding, and who plays the sustain petal, lots of stuff like that. Keiko reciprocated by writing a piece for me on one of her albums. We had so much fun doing it. That led to the thought that maybe it might be fun to actually do a concert tour. I don't think Keiko ever had much experience playing four hand music publicly before that. The thing that made it really exciting and fun for me is that our plan was just to have one concert grand piano on the stage – no amplification, no big technology. In this case it was just the purity of the piano in a really good concert hall with good acoustics. It sort of required something from the audience too. They had to make that adjustment, even when we were playing full-out fortissimo; it's not the big sound like it would be in a normal jazz concert.
So, we set out to do it, and it just turned out to be a major highlight for me. It was one of the most fun things I'd ever done. Keiko's extremely talented. Some of it her fans know because her shows are very dramatic and her records have a very produced aspect to them, but what you can only tell when you're sitting right next to her on the bench is what phenomenal technique [she has], and the confidence, and the touch, and all these things that you can't hide. One somewhat embarrassing aspect of that is that both of us in our separate ways, try to avoid making mistakes in a live performance, and try to get it as perfect as we could. She was always much more bulletproof than I was. She made me set my sights that much higher, and I would try, night after night to make zero [mistakes], but that just wouldn't happen. I just kept being more and more impressed with how solid and confident her technique was. I felt like I had learned a lot from that, and just had a completely different appreciation for that. I also knew that she was a great improviser too. I deliberately threw in a bunch of spontaneous things that we had to do where I knew that there was no way she could have practiced it in advance, and she was still bulletproof. She still found a way to be creative and different every night. I still feel that there's an awful lot there untapped in her talent that I hope will continue to come out.
SV: Moving on to Fourplay. You said the song, “Restoration” is the predecessor to what would eventually become Fourplay, but you had known these musicians for years before that, hadn't you?
BJ: Everybody except Nathan [East]. I actually met Nathan on that session when we recorded “Restoration.” I'd known Harvey [Mason] for many, many years. He and I had done a project going back to the mid 1970s together. It had been more recent that I worked with Lee Ritenour on a number of things in studio, but Harvey and I had the longest friendship. Lee and I had started a kind of reciprocal agreement where I would invite him to play on one of my projects, and then he would reciprocate and invite me to play on one of his. It was sort of my turn so I decided it would make sense for me to come out to California because I wanted to work with Harvey also. I asked both Lee and Harvey who I should get as a bass player and they both said Nathan East. I'd seen his name, and I'd heard him on recordings, but you never know how you're going to get along with somebody until you get with them first-hand. I definitely was looking for Lee and Harvey to give me a strong recommendation, and, of course, I went with it. The rest is history, as they say.
In addition to being the great musician that he is, he's a very close friend. I'm grateful for that time when we had that encounter that's led to lots of things over the last, I guess it's been about 14 years. 1991 was when Fourplay started. Time does march on.
We've been long enough in the Fourplay thing that we've been with Larry Carlton longer than we were with Lee Ritenour. That's another history that, for us at least, has been an interesting one because when Lee decided to leave the group there was always the question as the whether the group would survive or not. It had such an identity when it started. Larry took up the challenge, and it was very difficult for him at first to figure out how to deal with that. He's very strongly attached to his sound and his own way of making music. He didn't want to just play music where he would be imitating Lee. That's the last thing we would want him to do. We had to convince him that we were willing to let the sound of the group change to make it represent what he did – his style, his sound, and everything else. Little by little, it has done that to a point now where I feel that the group is stronger than it's ever been. We just came back from a tour of Japan. Larry's been playing great, confidently. We now have plenty of repertoire that Larry created.
The transition was tough, but it was also fun to figure out. It was a fun challenge. All of us knew that problem, and we knew that there was maybe more of a competitive thing between guitar players than with any other instrument. I don't know why that is, but they stake out their territory. Even though Larry and Lee had actually performed together... they'd collaborated on an album not that long before we ended up in the situation where we asked Larry to join our group. Still, the staking out their own turf was very important to both of them. We had said so many times over the last few years how much of a tribute it is to Larry's confidence and his talent and actually, to give some credit to the concept of this group that the concept holds up. It isn't just dependent on one particular style. It was what we feel is the essence of what makes the group unique – you find four people who can get along well enough musically where there's no leader, and that there's a four way, as even as possible, contribution. Larry is a fantastic team player. We wouldn't have known that until we got on the firing line and lived with it over long periods of time and recordings and live performances and everything. I think he has somewhat the same feeling the rest of us have of discovering how interesting that is, and how much freedom it gives you knowing that [when] its your turn to jump in the spotlight you have three really solid people supporting you, and how important both elements of that are. Fortunately, this many years into the concept of it, it's still working. I think better than ever. I'm hoping that we can keep doing it for many more years.
SV: Here you had four established musicians with their own careers, and their own followings, very respected in the industry, and you put them together to see if this bird is going to fly.
BJ: The first record that we made was more commercially acceptable than we anticipated, maybe largely because the guest vocal by El DeBarge took off, and suddenly we found ourselves with the reality that this successful record existed. There was a pretty big responsibility to follow up on it, to take advantage of it, to get out there and tour. We weren't even sure that we were going to tour because we didn't know if there would be time to do it. We all had pretty busy solo careers. Now we can truly say we've made good on what our theory was at the beginning; what would it take to start a group that had its own identity separate from the individuals? And that's been the most enduring or the most interesting aspect of it because it does feel completely different when we get together than any of the feelings that we have when we do things individually. There's something about the responsibility of the essence of the group, of the name of the group that makes us feel like we have to rise to the occasion and keep trying to make it better.
SV: I have to admit that as a fan, I was a little concerned when Lee Ritenour left the group. I wasn't sure what would happen, but when the announcement came that Larry Carlton was in, it seemed that it was a good choice.
BJ: As it turned out, there was no question about it, but we had to find out. I had never worked with Larry either, so when his name came up, certainly I knew his music, but it was kind of a selfish thing for me because I'd always wanted to work with him. I thought, if he turns out to be the choice that would give me the opportunity to get to know him on a first hand basis. It was maybe a little bit like what I described about Pat Methany where I had bumped into Larry a few times and we had made some hint about how it would be fun to play together sometime, but until Fourplay happened, I had not had that opportunity. So I had no idea. It certainly would have been possible that it wouldn't stick with Larry, and there was no way to know that without doing it. I think we would all say, and I think Larry would agree with this, that in the first couple of years, there was a bit of a question as to whether it would survive with him over the long haul because he was still struggling to find his voice. We wanted him to just be himself. The other part of the history was just that, ancient history. Whatever the group was going to be, it was going to be Larry's sound.
SV: Well, it's all working out. You're still filling concert halls – selling out!
BJ: It's been a great run, I must say. I wonder sometimes at my age, how much energy that I have. In some ways, the Fourplay group becomes like a second full-time job. We're always trying to figure out the ways to handle our scheduling so that it doesn't get too pressured. I feel like I still want to do justice to my solo career, as the rest of the guys do too. That becomes somewhat of a challenge because sometimes we have a promoter who says “Can you bring the other guys with you?” It becomes a little less desirable to have you as a solo performer without the other three guys. Logistically, it's either difficult or impossible to go into the same market there's going to be, or there just was, a Fourplay concert because you've already saturated that market for that period of time. So it's a challenge in that respect. We like to think that we handled it in the right way; that the two different things should be complimentary to each other. And, in the best sense of the word, if our individual careers are successful it makes Fourplay that much more successful, and vice versa.
SV: I want to ask you about Warner Brothers [WB] closing their jazz department. I know you were with WB for a very long time. What have the ramifications been for you?
BJ: Obviously it was a big shock, that something that loomed that big with the strongest jazz roster in the country, and such a great history of recordings and a history for me, having been with the company for so long. It was sad to see it go so drastically different due to many factors, which are beyond me being able to know all the ramifications why that happened. But for me, the one positive aspect of it was that I have for a long time wanted to have a bit more independence. Rather than go out and seek another type of relationship like that, which I've had for more than 30 years of being an exclusive artist for one label or another, I just decided that I wasn't going to do that. I've just been doing my projects independently. [I] put them with whatever label is interested in them on an individual basis. That's been my battle plan over the last almost year since this happened and I became a free agent. In some ways the security of having an exclusive contract with a label, and having a budget, and having a big company behind you that you know is going to be putting a lot of promotion money in, and all these other things, is a luxury that, when I was growing up at least, all artists were striving to get that. That would be considered to be the ultimate thing, when you have that kind of potential to make records with that kind of support. When that's missing, you're kind of out there in the marketplace experiencing reality in a different way, and in some ways it's been hard. I guess what I would say about myself is that I've had a hard time deciding what to do. When I had somebody else at the A&R department at the company pressuring me, sooner or later you have to make a decision. You have a deadline, release schedule; you have to be all kinds of things that force you into a more methodical way of thinking about making your recordings. Now, I just have myself to answer to, and that's very powerful, but it's also a different kind of discipline. I like the idea of being able to make the kind of music that I want to make independent of whatever commercial pressures there might be. So far I love most of the aspects of it. [It's] kind of a scary new world that's out there, overall, for all artists, young and old.
SV: I've come to see that as a mixed blessing too because it gives a chance for some of the smaller labels to get some really good artists.
BJ: Absolutely. It's just a new playing field because there have to be new creative ways of how you promote music. Big behemoth companies really suffered the most. The whole structure is not working. Until they change it, I'm sure that will shake itself down, and it will evolve into something in the future, but this period of time that we're in now is unique in that respect, where it is possible for smaller companies and even individual performers to take matters into their own hands and bypass the whole world of normal retail.
SV: Right. Radio and retail.
BJ: Sure. Certainly radio still looms as a powerful tool. You have to get people to find out about you, to know what it is you're doing. Just having a website along with thousands of other websites doesn't guarantee that anyone is going to find you. If you have a reputation, and I'm lucky enough that I have some loyal fans that I can start out with a base and build from there. But for young artists it's a different kind of challenge.
SV: Definitely. I have one more question for you. You've been in this business for a long time. What makes you still want to be a part of this?
BJ: Well , there is no separation anymore between this music and my life. It is my life. Music is always going to be my main passion. I feel very fortunate that I'm in a business which is also my hobby, which is also my escape. Retirement? I don't think about it at all. I certainly hope to be doing it as long as I possibly can. You learn to realize that you love your work, and working is a good thing. I feel so lucky because the work days are the quality of my life. That's not very poetic, but I hope you get the idea.
SV: Yes, I do. Thank you very much for talking to me. This has been such an honor for us and for me personally.
BJ: Thank you, and good luck with Smoothviews. I hope it's very successful for you. I'm happy to have a little part of being on your site.
Visit Bob's website: www.bobjames.com
Visit Fourplay's website: www.fourplayjazz.com
Bob James – The Art of Wine Collection: www.cachetbeverages.com/aowcellar.htm
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