Bob James ‘Best of’ 2CD (Salvo) 4/5

bob-jamesMulti-instrumentalist Bob James has sometimes been unfairly stereotyped as a formulaic smooth jazz exponent, but this excellent value set bears testimony to a wide and varied career, and one in which James has been prepared to make regular stylistic and personnel changes. CD 1 focuses on the mid-1970s recordings on CTI and this established James as a gifted composer and arranger. Several cuts from the first three albums became heavily sampled among hip-hop and rap artists and ‘Nautilus’ and Westchester Lady’ rate among the very best and catchiest of 1970s fusion. In fact it was an instrumental version of Roberta Flack’s ‘Feel like makin’ love’ (with the original vocal featuring similar personnel) that became a hit for James and this unexpectedly resulted in his solo career taking off after numerous sideman duties. Of course most casual fans will know him best through ‘Angie’, the title track to the US series ‘Taxi Driver’.
While James is not a virtuoso soloist in the vein of Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner, it was the combination of his arranging and keyboard skills that singled him out as a unique talent and in this respect more akin to Clare Fischer or Quincy Jones. CD 2 takes the story on throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Possibly further cuts from the commercially successful ‘Sign of the Times’ could have been included. However, the compilation provides a useful overview of his career, very generously timed, and with extensive liner notes that feature original photos and album covers. As an introduction to Bob James’ craft, it could hardly be bettered.

Tim Stenhouse