“It was a surprise – almost a shock,” Traverse City’s Bob James laughs, recalling how he felt after discovering his May 2014 Traverse City concert had been recorded — without his knowledge.
It was the quick thinking of the Dennos Museum’s Gene Jenneman to save the Grammy Award-winning jazz performer’s concert for posterity, a fact he only admitted to James after the show concluded. The multitrack recording by Milliken Tech Director Jack Connors was such high quality, even James admitted it had to become something more. That “something” is the new album Bob James Live at the Milliken.
“It was a very celebratory evening,” James tells The Ticker, “and I had secretly been hoping it had been recorded somehow. So when Gene shyly said that they had done just that, I was happy to hear it. It was recorded beautifully, and I was thrilled. And it may have been good I didn’t know ahead of time, as that makes performers nervous!”
Not that James has anything to be nervous about. He was discovered in 1963 at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival by producer Quincy Jones, and his 1974 solo album, One, became a landmark set for the smooth jazz genre, of which James is a major progenitor. One’s closing track, “Nautilus,” is one of the most sampled tracks in hip-hop music, and James’ collaborations with the likes of David Sanborn and Chet Baker would soon become part of his legend.
But it’s in live performance that James excels, from his days commandeering the jazz clubs of New York City to his international tours. His most recent was a trek through Japan, which is why Live at the Milliken’s release premiered overseas.
“The initial intention was to have the album’s premiere release in Traverse City,” James explains. “But with the tour coming up in Japan, we decided to have some advance copies pressed. It was really cool to have them available for the fans there.”
Fans here will think the album is pretty cool, too. James says the show’s “magical tone” was a combination of several things.
“Well, for starters, I was among friends,” he says. “But it also had a lot to do with my piano.”
James keeps his 9-foot Steinway Hamburg Concert Grand at the Dennos as a semi-permanent loan – the piano won’t fit into his house, and he trusts longtime friend Jenneman to oversee the piano’s care.
“It’s a very powerful piano, and I think that comes across in the performance,” he adds.
Next up for James, among other projects, is his first big attempt at writing a classical piano concerto. He’s wrapping up work on the three-movement, 25-minute classical piece, which he’ll be performing with the Tokyo Philharmonic in September, and again with the Traverse City Symphony in June 2016.
It’s another step forward for a musician who stays relevant and innovative by never looking too far back.
“I just wanted the challenge,” he says.