Bob James Trio ‘Espresso’ LP/CD/SACD/DIG (Evosound) 3/5

Best known for his jazz-fusion recordings on CTI of the 1970s that have been heavily sampled by hip-hop artists and rappers alike, here we hear another side to Bob James. The album finds him in a mainly acoustic trio setting with Michael Palazollo excellent on acoustic bass, though on occasion James does perform on electric piano, and there is even a gentle nod to his former fusion period. All but two compositions are originals. What is sometimes forgotten about Bob James is that he began recording on the avant-garde ESP Disc imprint, the very same that both Albert Ayler and a young Pharoah Sanders graced during the 1960s. Bob James retains a keen interest for the piano jazz tradition and introduces some tasty blues inflections on the Fats Waller opus, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’, taken here at a medium pace. The other standard is, perhaps surprisingly, ‘Mr. Magic’, which cemented Grover Washington’s early career, and the piano vamp intro and deft brush work by drummer Billy Kilson leads directly into the famous motif. Thereafter, the piece reverts to a mid-tempo waltz. Throughout his career, Bob James has never shied away from composing for television and, ‘Boss Lady’, very much fits into that category, with a pretty minor theme in evidence. His fusion credentials come to the fore on ‘Topside’, which is a reflective ballad that morphs into a soulful groove of the kind that Ramsey Lewis might have attempted in the mid-late 1960s. In fact, the number bears a strong resemblance to ‘The In Crowd’, but adds synthesiser layered textures. Nothing too radical, but long-time fans and even crate diggers will find something to commend on this outing.

Tim Stenhouse