James was born in Marshall, Missouri, the youngest of two children to Albert Lamkin James and Alice (née McElhiney) James. He began playing piano at age four, and at seven discovered he had the gift of perfect pitch. James began his professional career as an adolescent. His early opportunities included membership in the Earle Parsons Dance Band, for whom he penned his first large-band composition. He received more music instruction during high school. In addition to piano, James learned trumpet, timpani, and percussion. Between 1950 and 1956, he competed at Missouri State Fair piano competitions, winning several blue ribbons. He initially attended the University of Michigan to earn a Bachelor's and Master's in music. During the first semester of his sophomore year, he transferred to Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts. James dug deep into free jazz with area musicians and formed his own trio. In 1962, his group entered the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival competition; the judges included Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones. After James' band won the contest, Jones signed James to Mercury Records, where he released his debut album, Bold Conceptions (1963), a free bop exploration produced by Jones. After graduating from Berklee, James moved to New York, where he met Bernard Stollman from ESP-Disk. He brought the impresario a tape he'd produced with his own trio and some classmates from his days in Ann Arbor, namely composers/sound artists Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma from the Once Group. His ESP-Disk offering, Explosions, was released in 1965. James also worked as an arranger and piano accompanist for Sarah Vaughan.
He reunited with Jones in the late '60s and did some arranging for studio sessions that became Hubert Laws' Crying Song and Jones' own Walking in Space. Producer and entrepreneur Creed Taylor, who founded CTI, attended some sessions and, impressed, signed James to his label as a producer, arranger, and studio musician. James became a noted arranger and producer while with Taylor, working with Grover Washington, Jr., Hank Crawford, Gabor Szabo, Esther Phillips, and many others before recording his label debut One in 1974. Between it and BJ4, his 1977 label swan song, James, along with Don Sebesky, became one of the label's arranging and producing anchors.
James left CTI to found his own Tappan Zee label. In 1978, he released his breakthrough album Touchdown, which featured the mega hit "Angela." Because the song was so closely associated with the hit sitcom Taxi, the album attained platinum certification -- a rarity for jazz albums. James eventually composed all the series' original music for its five-season run. In 1980, James and Earl Klugh recorded the duet offering One on One, the first of three collaborations in a decade; it sold over a million copies and was awarded a Grammy in 1980 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
A different aspect of James' talent, was demonstrated on the three classical albums he recorded for the CBS Masterworks division, the first of which was Rameau, released in 1984, that showcased his performances of the composer's works on contemporary instruments, including synthesizer. After the release of Double Vision with saxophonist David Sanborn in 1986 -- another platinum seller and Grammy winner -- he issued two more classical titles for Masterworks, The Scarlatti Dialogues in 1986 and Concertos for Two Three Keyboards BWV 1060, 1061, 1063 with Güher and Süher Pekinel in 1989. While recording Grand Piano Canyon in 1990, James reunited with longtime friend, drummer Harvey Mason, Jr. James also worked with guitarist Lee Ritenour and bassist Nathan East for the first time during those sessions, which ignited a creative spark and led to the formation of Fourplay, who released their self-titled debut in 1991. In 1994, James issued the jazz-funk outing Restless, featuring Michael Brecker and East, and a charting contribution from Luther Vandross via the track "Under Me." James and daughter Hilary were co-billed on Flesh Blood and released a self-titled album in 1995, followed by a tour of 15 American cities. He also collaborated on separate projects with Earl Klugh (Cool) and Kirk Whalum (Joined at the Hip). Both were nominated for Grammys. After four albums, Ritenour left Fourplay in 1998, and was replaced by Larry Carlton. James' 1999 solo effort Joyride resulted in yet another Grammy nomination.
In 2001, James' Dancing on the Water included contributions from pianists Keiko Matsui and Joe Sample, double bassist Dave Holland, and Loeb. With Fourplay he released Heartfelt in 2002 and toured the globe. James also released his own Morning, Noon, Night, whose title track hit the top spot on the Contemporary Jazz Radio chart. While appearing at New York's Blue Note in 2003, James entered the Hit Factory with a rhythm section comprised of drummer Billy Kilson and bassist James Genus. Their resulting album, Take It from the Top, was a sterling tribute to pianists who inspired James, who included Ahmad Jamal, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Oscar Peterson.
Fourplay released Journey in 2004 and toured through December of the following year. In Bangkok, Thailand, he delivered the world-premiere concert performance of his The Angels of Shanghai; the release was issued in 2006. It was performed later that year at the prestigious Seongnam Arts Center in Seoul, Korea. James also released Urban Flamingo in February 2006 and was awarded the George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards. Summer saw the release of Fourplay’s tenth offering, appropriately called X, followed by a world tour.
In 2008, James and Hilary released Christmas Eyes, followed by the Fourplay album Energy that featured Esperanza Spalding. It yielded another Grammy nomination for its first single, "Fortune Teller." The year ended with James receiving an International Achievement Award from the State of Michigan.
James and guitarist Jack Lee 2009 released the collaborative work Botero, that included music composed for the Broadway play Impressionism. He also cut Across the Groove, a collaboration with Japanese sax player Masato Honda, leading to a tour across Asia, Europe, and the U.S.
2010 saw the release of the 12th Fourplay album. It led to another world tour, culminating in an unforgettable collaboration with the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo that December. The event premiered new orchestral pieces arranged specifically for the concert; it was Fourplay's first performance with a symphony orchestra. Fourplay was voted Best Group of the Year at the American Smooth Jazz Awards. That year, Carlton left the group to pursue his own interests, and Chuck Loeb, another longtime associate, claimed the guitar chair.
James always felt a kinship for Japan, a nation that had been so generous to him throughout his career. In 2011, in the aftermath of the Fukushima and earthquake disasters there, James helped to realize the Jazz for Japan benefit album, and the Iwate Benefit Concert, which he headlined. The success of the concert was the foundation event that led to the creation of the annual Iwate Jazz Festival.
That September, Altair Vega, a four-handed piano duet collaboration with Keiko Matsui, was released. The unique collaboration took nearly ten years to complete -- it was compiled from memorable live performances between the pair. It was issued with a performance DVD recorded at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. Fourplay headlined the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl just afterward, and received the Oasis Contemporary Jazz Award for Group of the Year. In November, James released another collaboration, Just Friends: The Hamilton Hall Sessions with guitarist Howard Paul. The pianist was also honored in Marshall, Missouri with the inaugural Bob James Jazz Festival.
In 2012, Fourplay resumed recording and issued Esprit de Four, which peaked at number two on the Jazz Albums chart. It produced several singles, including "Put Our Hearts Together," featuring vocals by Seiko Matsuda. The song was a tribute to the regions of Japan devastated by the natural and nuclear disasters. In 2013, James and Sanborn collaborated on Quartette Humaine. It marked the first recorded creative collaboration between the pair since Double Vision 25 years earlier. In 2014, the University of Michigan School of Music inducted James into its Hall of Fame, and celebrated with a week's worth of events.
2015 saw the release of Live at the Milliken Auditorium, captured solo on a single night in Traverse City, Michigan. The same year also brought The New Cool, the first duo release from James and East. Still not finished, James and Fourplay issued the full-length Silver, recorded live to tape at Sunset Sound Studios, it commemorated the band's first recording session 25 years earlier.
James' first piano concerto was premiered in 2015 by the Tokyo Philharmonic, and had its U.S. premiere with the Traverse City Symphony in June 2016. The following year, James became the first recipient of the Traverse City Opera House Ambassador for the Arts Award. In March, pianist and flutist Nancy Stagnitta, an Interlochen Arts Academy instructor, recorded a series of duets live in concert at the Interlochen Center for the Arts' Dendrinos Chapel. It was released in early 2018 as In the Chapel in the Moonlight. That August, James released Espresso, his first studio date leading a jazz piano trio in a dozen years. Featuring drummer Kilson and the young Detroit bassist Michael Palazzo, it was inspired by a week of performances by the group at New York City's Blue Note the previous fall. An archival album, Once Upon a Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions, arrived in 2020 and featured the pianist in two early trio dates, one with bassist Larry Rockwell and drummer Robert Pozar, and one with Bill Wood and drummer Omar Clay.
In 2019 German trumpeter Till Brönner invited James to rendezvous with him at the legendary La Fabrique Studio in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. The 200-year-old-manor, a luxury residence as well as a state of the art recording studio, is well known for hosting sessions by Charles Aznavour, Kanye West, Etienne Daho, Morrissey, and Nick Cave among others. The pair immediately slipped into the vibrant creative atmosphere provided by their surroundings. They recorded a dozen tracks and released them as On Vacation in October 2020. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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