Bob James, Jazz Café, London

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The Independent Culture

Bob James is a name some of us feel the need to whisper softly. He is at least partially responsible for the growth of smooth jazz, although, to be fair, when he was recording his mammoth studio albums in the 1970s (titled, rather marvellously, One, Two, Three and Four) and adding wah-wah guitars to Bizet's L'Arlesienne suite, he could not have known his successors would forge a music of such terminal blandness.

But there's always been a bit more to this pianist, quite apart from the fact that he has come up with a few very catchy tunes, such as "Angela's Theme", from the television series Taxi. Just underneath the commercial gloss lurks a musician of complexity, and in live performance he's more willing to emerge. So although the vast majority of the material handled by his quartet at the Jazz Café (Dave McMurray on sax and flute, James Genus on bass, and Billy Kilson on drums) was palpably "smooth" in origin, it was lifted above the genre by small touches - some Eddie Harris honks from McMurray, the fact that Genus was playing upright bass, and a series of solos by the leader that contained moments of unexpected spikiness.

One can hear in James's spare, ultra-clean right-hand soloing a link to Basie. Both pianists, like James's contemporaries Dave Grusin and Joe Sample, know the value of the carefully-placed note rendered all the more effective through the splendour of its isolation. James also showed off his command of other styles in several passages of Modern Jazz Quartet-style baroque swing, one of which appeared in a version of "Downtown". (Bizarrely, this was James's tribute to Glenn Gould - because, we were informed, the great classical pianist was a fan of Petula Clark.) This, along with "Nardis", a nod to Bill Evans, managed to outweigh the tight but pointless grooves that are also a James trademark; in one such he doubled the offence by sending Kilson offstage and - shudder at the thought of it - switching on a drum machine.

The encores consisted of two tunes that Bob James has probably played in every performance for 20 years - "Westchester Lady" (from 1976's Three) and "Angela's Theme". The crowd roared their approval at these two simple but effective tunes. If their enduring popularity shows anything, it is the incredible power of the riff. To master it in the way James has done, placing it in a musical context that never threatens or puzzles his audience, but just manages to remain on speaking terms with real jazz, is an achievement.

A smooth jazz sweetie is OK now and again, and at least the Bob James variety isn't all sugar coating.

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