Bob James Talks Reunion With David Sanborn | Playboy Jazz Special 2013
Playboy Jazz Festival Special –
Bob James: The A. Scott Galloway Interview
by A. Scott Galloway
Once upon a time called 1986, two pillars of contemporary jazz named Bob James & David Sanborn pooled their resources and recorded an album together titled Double Vision that became a million-selling Grammy winning classic on the strengths of a soulful vocal version of “Since I Fell For You” featuring Al Jarreau (penned by Buddy Johnson in 1945 who debuted it with his orchestra featuring his sister Ella Johnson singing yet was made a big hit in 1963 by Lenny Welch), and an instrumental inspired by the capital city of Mozambique, “Maputo” penned by Marcus Miller (born this day on June 14, 1959 – “Happy Birthday Marcus”). Unlike most successful ventures in the music business, no immediate sequel was ever mounted making it a one of a kind affair…until last month that is.
On May 20, 2013, keyboard master James and alto saxophone giant Sanborn finally released a follow-up collaboration only this time in an acoustic jazz quartet vein inspired by the legendary and capriciously adventurous time signature shape shifters The Dave Brubeck Quartet. The title of this ear-pleasing new CD is Quartette Humaine and also features stellar drummer Steve Gadd and formidable bassist James Genus. This foursome is among the main draws for this year’s 2013 “Playboy Jazz Festival,” performing Day 2: Sunday, June 16 – Father’s Day!
In the interview that follows, Bob James talks about how the record came together and what fans can expect from them in the live context, the pervading influence of Dave Brubeck over the sessions, his days recording with full orchestra at CTI…and the privilege of having worked so closely with ace drummers Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason.
A. Scott Galloway: How did your first concert of the tour go last night at Radio City Music Hall (June 6, 2013)?
Bob James: It was thrilling! I love challenges and doing something new – nervousness and all. As much as I love performing with Fourplay (the all-star quartet with drummer Harvey Mason, bassist/vocalist Nathan East and guitarist Chuck Loeb) and all the performing we did last year and earlier this year, being familiar with the material you just relax and have fun. Last night there was that edge in a good way – playing material live for the first time. We were essentially doing the world premier performances of this new music Quartette Humaine. We were laughing because usually with New York theatre, you first do out of town try out shows – going to smaller towns then bringing it back to the big city thoroughly ready. As it turned out schedule-wise, our very first gig was in the biggest city in the most important venue, so we had to hit it hard last night and it felt great, Steve Gadd and James Genus played on the record and were both with us last night.
Galloway: What beautiful rare continuity to have the guys that you work-shopped the music with in the studio taking it out on the road with you. Are you exclusively playing material from the new album?
James: We have so many loyal fans from Double Vision so we play a few of the things from that. But for the most part it’s committing to the new album, jumping right in and playing new material most people in the audience haven’t heard yet because the CD has only been available for a couple of weeks. The feeling we had is that the audience really liked going with us on this adventure into unknown territory. For me it was about proving that this repertoire holds up in live performance. Very often it’s a different challenge and feeling to play music live from what you prepared carefully in the studio. Dave and I worked for several months on Quartette Humaine to get it the way we wanted it to sound. In live performance you only get that one chance – either it works or it doesn’t.
Galloway: Your relationship with Dave goes back to your album, Heads (1977, Bob’s first album for his own Tappan Zee Records label). Prior to that when you were featuring saxophone, it was primarily tenor as played by the late, great Grover Washington Jr. Was there something unique about Dave’s sound on alto that intrigued you to later feature him on Touchdown (1978) and, eventually, your duo album Double Vision?
James: At that time I was well aware of Dave Sanborn’s reputation. There was no other saxophonist with that sound – characteristic of only him…so much so that many artists after couldn’t avoid feeling like they’d in some way copied his sound. I was very lucky to have him accept my invitation to play on those albums. We wound up working together a lot, ending up on a lot of the same New York sessions.
It was a suggestion that came to us from the outside to collaborate in the mid-`80s. It evolved first as Dave thinking of having me just come in as an arranger for his next Warner Bros. album. He had a pretty good working relationship with (bassist/composer) Marcus Miller and Al Jarreau. They had toured live which I was not involved in. The way that Dave and I collaborated it was only natural for Marcus to become involved. He contributed two great songs – particularly “Maputo” which became such a signature. We performed both of Marcus’ songs last night at Radio City as well (the other one being “More Than Friends”).
Galloway: Was Marcus in the audience?
James: No, he was on the road. We were disappointed he wasn’t present to hear the premier of our new arrangements but hopefully we’ll have a chance to play them for him in this new setting. Both of his songs sound very different in this acoustic quintet. We have the fringe benefit/bonus of having Steve Gadd with us. He created the magic groove on the original “Maputo” and is with us now. Nevertheless, we didn’t want it to sound the same for similar reasons that we went into a different direction for this entire project.
When we first got back together to do this – realizing that we’d waited much too long and that it was long overdue for us to do some kind of follow-up to Double Vision, we both felt it would be a mistake to try to recreate that sound. So we went in a completely different direction. “Maputo” just really holds up – a great melody, a great bass line… You can do it in a bunch of different settings. It was really fun demonstrating that to our audience last night.
Galloway: It appears to me that you composed brand new pieces for this project whereas Dave revisits songs he’s composed and recorded previously. I definitely remember “Sofia” (the closing song from Dave’s 2005 CD, Closer – Verve) because I love it so much, especially the interplay between he and vibraphonist Mike Maineri. Share a little about the gathering of repertoire this time around.
James: We only had a couple of meetings about material. Timing is everything. Dave was quite busy on the road which may be why he chose not to write as much. I was surprised at first when he came in with two songs he’d already recorded. Originally he wasn’t thinking about doing them much differently either. I convinced him to at least allow us to explore the tunes in a different way – in acoustic quartet mode. I love both of those songs, too, and wanted to treat them with utmost respect, especially “Sofia” which he wrote for his wife. She was at the show last night and said it was the first time she ever heard it performed in concert. Dave hadn’t been doing it in his own live sets. So that was fun for me to jump in and get a chance to do that with him.
At the same time, I was not on tour a month or two before we went into the studio so I had time to develop new material. I was determined to explore this completely different instrumentation, sound and approach to what I had been doing previously with Fourplay. I loved the challenge and even more when the instrumentation we chose turned out to mirror that of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. We talked about paying our respects to that era – how we had both been influenced in separate ways by that music. That sent me to the composing room to see if I could do something in the way of a tribute. As it turned out, we learned that Dave Brubeck had passed away during the time we were recording. It was an opportunity for me to dedicate a piece to him: “Follow Me.” My spirit in doing it wasn’t so much to write something that sounded like the Brubeck Quartet but to have the same feeling of adventure I remembered from listening to their music in college. His compositions were so eclectic, influenced by classical music – a lot of the things that have been a part of the way I approach my own music.
Galloway: I would imagine you had some occasion to meet or interact with Mr. Brubeck while he was alive.
James: I did. I never collaborated in any way with him but I had been working as an A&R man at Columbia way back when Dave’s sons recorded for the label with their group. I didn’t produce them but I got to meet them several times as well as Dave. Then a few years ago – not long before he passed away – Fourplay was on the same bill with him in Florida and they wanted to do a photo session backstage with all of the musicians. We ended up in this group photo together. I went over and introduced myself, not thinking he would remember me. It had been many years prior and briefly when it did happen. But he shocked me by saying, “Oh, Bob, you don’t have to introduce yourself to me. I remember you!” Then he started to reel off a bunch of stuff that he knew about my music. It was extremely flattering – a great memory for me. I thought about it often while working on the music for this project.
Galloway: I saw Mr. Brubeck at the Hollywood Bowl several years back playing in a group of musicians all in his age range. I could not get over how spry and playful they all were as advanced in age as they were.
James: He was very inspiring for me, too. I want to keep on as long as I can with that same spirit.
Galloway: What were the inspirations behind the compositions and song titles for “Follow Me” and “You Better Not Go To College?”
James: Taking “Follow Me” first, one of the things that we all loved about the Brubeck Quartet was its really playful and crazy time signature compositions – not only that Brubeck wrote but saxophonist Paul Desmond, too, who penned the most famous one, “Take Five.” We all learned to count in 5 with that song which has been reworked a number of times (including vocal versions by Carmen McRae and the aforementioned Al Jarreau). Certainly Dave Sanborn and I didn’t want to do something obvious or simplistic as a tribute. As a composer, I wanted to go more my way and, out of respect, not try to duplicate the sound. I’ve been a big fan of one of Brubeck’s most famous compositions, “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” which is also a very playful odd-time signature piece. So that started me on the path of composing “Follow Me.”
The other song, which I ended up calling “You Better Not Go to College,” is inspired by Brubeck’s piece “In Your Own Sweet Way.” I was looking for a delicate interplay piece to do with Sanborn – not trying to emulate but in the spirit. And though the song title was for me a very obscure, indirect reference to the Brubeck album Jazz Goes to College (1954 – Columbia), my title actually grew out of a phrase that I use all the time dating back to me being a fan of the James Dean movie “East of Eden” (1955). In that movie, the line, “You better not go to college” was delivered by the actress Jo Van Fleet who played the role of James Dean’s mother (“Katie”) who was running a house of prostitution. James Dean (“Cal”) went to visit her office to borrow $5,000 because his father’s business had gone under. In this very cryptic sarcastic way she replies, “And if you don’t think that’s funny, you better not go to college.” So for us, if you don’t like this new acoustic music we created for Quartette Humaine, you better not go to college! I’ve wanted to use that title for a long time and now I finally had the perfect song and album to go with it.
Galloway: Well, if nothing else you’ll turn a new generation of kids onto a classic movie! Moving on, I have to first say that James Genus is a very solid bass player throughout this album and I love what you and Dave said in your EPK about how impressed you were by all the things that he and Steve Gadd did and did not do through the process by which you and Dave painstakingly shaped and molded this new music in the studio. However – also being a drummer – I am eager to hear your thoughts on working with Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason. In the `70s and `80s, they represented the East Coast vs. West Coast pinnacles of studio/sideman drumming, and you had the great fortune of featuring them brilliantly on records over the years. In particular, Gadd on Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain” from your LP Bob James One (CTI- 1974) and Mason on “Westchester Lady” from Bob James Three (CTI – 1976).
James: Immediately I have to state how unbelievably lucky I am at this point to go back and forth between those two guys. They’re my favorites, too! I totally view both of them as my absolute favorite drummers. You can see it throughout my recording history. Because of our shared space in Fourplay, I’ve had much more opportunities to work with Harvey in recent years, touring and recording every year. I haven’t had that opportunity until recently to work again with Steve though we’ve remained friends and everything. When I took on this project with Dave Sanborn and we were discussing direction, though it would have been fun to do this with Harvey as well, I really needed to pull away from that and get into a different mindset. Harvey understands that. All four of us in Fourplay understand our need to go into other projects and take opportunities to interact with somebody different. It forces the music to be different – no two ways about it.
So I’ve had a chance to witness up close and personal the difference stylistically between Harvey and Steve. It’s fascinating…a textbook example of how there can be such different approaches to similarly styled music yet end up with great results either way. From my vantage point, it was very important to stay open and not try to make either one of those guys try to change the way they play and celebrate the way they play – learn from the nuances in the way they swing and feel a groove. It’s very much fun for me. Sometimes it requires a little adjustment or a big adjustment depending on the material.
What I’ve been noticing about Steve – in his own group and with other people – he continually refines his playing making it more and more spare. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like he’s doing anything. I’m feeling the pulse but so much of the time he is understated and extremely patient…letting the music unfold…being a servant of the music. I have so much fun paying attention to him during the recordings. He would wait until he thoroughly understood where we were going with a piece then gradually develop his choices of groove or sound. He’s really a master of that and such a warm, cooperative and fun guy to be around. He just makes you feel relaxed making music.
You mentioned “Night On Bald Mountain” which over the years has proven to be a really big deal. Steve has even told me that was one of the recordings that was pivotal in helping him develop his reputation. It was one of the first recordings on which he was able to demonstrate that kind of unique virtuosity that sets him apart from other drummers. Even though there’s nothing quite like that on Quartette Humaine, for our concerts we have expanded “Follow Me” and “Montezuma” so that Steve could open up which is really fun to watch him do. He is completely humble and would say he doesn’t even need to do anything in the way of a solo if it’s not supporting the music. But we certainly wanted to feature him and know that his fans in our audience want to hear him do his thing. It was one of the highlights of our show last night.
Galloway: My final question thinking back to those glorious days of CTI where you arranged and recorded with full orchestra and rhythms section, are you at all interested in revisiting some of that music, writing a few new arrangements and possibly performing it somewhere with an orchestra…say at the Hollywood Bowl?
James: (sighs) Well, I do have tremendous sentiment for that music and miss it. A very dedicated fan and musician named Walt Straiton put together a concert in Riverside, Southern California two years ago (May 2011) where I pulled out all the old arrangements and performed them with a local orchestra. We even did “Night On Bald Mountain!” I had Harvey playing drums with me that night and it was tremendous fun. I would like to do more. At that time we were thinking of putting together a tour and doing it in several cities. As you know, it’s hard to do today – hard economically – and I’m facing that there are only so many days in the year that I can be ambitious enough to tour. Though it’s still a dream and I would love to do more, it requires special circumstances.
I had another wonderful opportunity three years ago Fourplay was invited to perform with the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo – a concert with a first class 60-piece ensemble made up mostly of young open minded classical musicians who were sympathetic with getting a little into our world. I put together three new arrangements for them then a medley going back and forth between “Night On Bald Mountain,” “Westchester Lady” and some of my older material. We had that recorded – beautiful audio and video – and just released a DVD that we sell on the road at our gigs. We’re very proud of it. I wish I could do more.
A. Scott Galloway
The Urban Music Scene
(The writer humbly dedicates this interview with Bob James – who shares the same alma mater as his dad – to two fine gentlemen: my father, Arnold John Galloway, for Father’s Day which we faithfully and traditionally celebrate at the “Playboy Jazz Festival” for well over 20 years running now…and to the memory of my Urban Music Scene colleague Jerry Clark with whom I shared fond memories backstage at the “Playboy Jazz Festival” as well – Respect.)