Bob James’ One and the Problem of Jazz Critics

Originally posted December of 2021, on my Jazz Views With Shizuka Shearn 2.0

I’m sitting here at almost 7 AM, on a frigid December morning writing this piece. There is literally no reason for it other than something I was listening to, and I hope that through my blog I can expose readers to recordings that I love that perhaps they are unfamiliar with. Jazz music, or Black American Music must be passed onto future generations, as well as other genres of music which have had some of their most important moments during the last century. We are in an information golden era, where everything is accessible, yet at the same time there is the unsettling reality that certain things especially in the age of 30 second Tiktok videos and other social media that things will be lost to time based on the fact that what is happening in a short span of time is most important.

I was born in the early eighties, when a lot of music my parents had grown up with from the sixties and seventies was emblematic of distinct forward movements in culture. The sixties and seventies in recorded music buoyed by counterculture and a desire to push back against the conservative ideals of the previous few decades. The late 60’s and the 70’s with the advent of multi track recording allowed for artists and producers to craft their music like audio novels. Certainly in pop and rock, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who, Genesis, Yes, Peter Gabriel and the Alan Parsons Project (notice the theme of all these artists being British?) broke new ground in making albums be literally novels in their flow of songs and sequencing. Digressions aside, this music was all still very very fresh. This leads me to an album I enjoy that still is fresh to me

Keyboardist Bob James, who had made an avant garde jazz album Explosions (1965, Esp Disk) and had done some work for theater, replaced house arranger Don Sebesky for Creed Taylor’s pivotal CTI Records at some point in 1972. I’m something of a CTI fanatic and have been since I was a child. James had contributed keyboards and string arrangements for artists on CTI and its “urban” subsidiary Kudu, including flutist Hubert Laws, saxophonists Grover Washington Jr, Stanley Turrentine, and Hank Crawford, among others in addition to being part of the touring CTI All Stars, a group Creed Taylor assembled each year mainly for summer tours where fans of the artists could see them play their hits and popular tracks backed by the same all star groups, many of which who had played together on the studio albums. CTI brought jazz a level of popularity through it’s elegant presentation of album art featuring striking photographs from Pete Turner on beautifully glossy album covers, and excellent sound engineering from Rudy Van Gelder, famous for his work the previous two decades for Blue Note, Impulse! Prestige, Savoy, Vox and other labels. In 1974, James got the opportunity to lead his own CTI recording, his first of four for the label entitled One.

Why am I writing about One? For starters, it’s an iconic album, especially in the hip hop community. It’s one of the most famous albums of the so called jazz-funk genre, both sonically, and visually striking. The cover art features an ominous, frightening looking golden face, looking something like a door knob against a dark background. It also oddly resembles the Japanese Buddhist figure Achala, which can be seen at many temples throughout Japan. Right away, that album cover catches your attention with the Gene Laurants photography in the spirit of the abstract. Very frequently CTI album covers featuring Pete Turner’s photographs engender a “what the?” type of response. The strange cover of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay comes to mind, or the cover to George Benson’s White Rabbit featuring an indigenous South American individual with white face paint which some folks mistook for a face full of cocaine! James Three cover appears to be a laser, which is odd.

The music of One is a mix of James originals, some adaptations of classical (the Pachebel “Canon In D” derived “In the Garden”), and the sultry, funky cover of the Eugene McDaniels penned “Feel Like Making Love” which Roberta Flack made famous with James and the same rhythm section in tow. Then the coup de grace, “Nautilus” brings the album to historic proportions. Many have heard it if they don’t know it by name. In short it’s a deep album cut, those are the tracks in the middle or at the end of an album where it’s determined the track isn’t fit for radio, or top streaming rotation. These are often the tunes where artists really let loose and play, or are quite experimental. “Nautilus” is experimental in it’s unusual keyboard textures which reminded James of being underwater in a submarine and producer Creed Taylor of stalactites in a cave. The track has been sampled on over 350 hip hop songs, with it’s atmosphere or relentless funky bass line and keyboard melody riff the focal point (no pun intended to my Focal Chora 826 speakers!)

Again, why am I writing about this album? I recently got the Super Audio CD released by Evosound Records earlier this year and was listening to “Feel Like Making Love” and “Nautilus” and drinking in the details. It’s a wonderful SACD. Sonically it’s a impressive recording; Rudy Van Gelder’s engineering superb, and Creed Taylor’s usual glossy production add to the mood. Some tracks primarily use the center as focus while “In The Garden”, “Feel Like Making Love” and “Nautilus” use a wide panorama between both speakers. The lengthy opening cut, “Valley of The Shadows” has that classic weird CTI, kind of free of tempo vibe on the intro, some pretty searing Steve Gadd drumming, and some pretty cool modern classical harmonies in the strings. James had a penchant on these early albums for some hip string writing, but the album tends to rankle purists… the kind of jazz fans that like their music swinging, straight ahead and acoustic, my mind was opened up long ago, and I instantly rebel against jazz purists. I was one when I didn’t know anything.

I decided to randomly search the All Music Guide rating for One on my phone, and while it receives a four out of five star rating, the review is written by Scott Yanow, a jazz critic and historian who has several books on the subject, and whose life goal is to hear and own every jazz recording ever made. I’ve never been a fan of Mr. Yanow’s work, whose tastes tend to be a bit conservative, favors bebop and hard bop based styles as well as pre bop jazz. He does like several avant garde and electric jazz albums, but his review of One is quite dismissive. All Music Guide has an issue where star ratings do not reflect the inept reviews of Yanow or the hyberbolic, self absorbed reviews of Thom Jurek. Yanow refers to the session incorrectly as James’ first recording for his own Tappan Zee label (James did acquire ownership of the masters to his CTI recordings following a lawsuit of Creed Taylor). He wrote:

Bob James’ first recording for his Tappan Zee label is typically lightweight. Although Grover Washington, Jr. has two spots on soprano, and trumpeter Jon Faddis is in the brass section, James’ dated Fender Rhodes keyboard is the lead voice throughout the six pieces, which include two adaptations of classical works. Only a lightly funky version of “Feel Like Making Love” rises above the level of pleasant background music.

Yanow simply is wrong about the music on the album. Much of his impressions come from surface, cursory listens, and the reviews lack the depth associated with writers such as Travis Rogers, Tyran Grillo, Raul de Gama, and my former mentor John Kelman. Mr. Yanow’s writing is frequently shallow, aimed at newcomers to jazz, but his often purely historical writing lacks the insight of writers such as the recently departed Greg Tate on the social issues surrounding the music, and built in systemic issues in the jazz world based on the social and cultural reasons. For example Yanow’s book, Bebop (Third Ear Press, 2000) though containing some good information is a purely paint by the numbers affair again aimed at novices, that offers little substance to well seasoned jazz fans like myself. Back to the issue at hand and Bob James. Mr. Yanow complains that the music is lightweight (do the string harmonies elude him on the opening track?), but this is still a period where jazz-funk hadn’t quite completely transformed into smooth jazz, a few years later, and like a lot of CTI albums there’s quite a bit of substance beneath the gloss. Yanow also misses the point about the Fender Rhodes electric piano. While the instrument was began development after World War II, with models resembling it’s present form being introduced in 1965. It became a fixture in popular music from the 1970’s onward. It’s sweet bell-like tones remain one of the most identifiable sounds in music, and in the field of jazz, like Herbie Hancock, the late masters Chick Corea and George Duke, and the little known European organist turned Rhodes player Rob Franken. James has one of the most recognizable styles and sounds on the instrument, widely emulated. The Rhodes is a popular instrument with the current crop of artists in the music today, among them Robert Glasper, Cory Henry and Connie Han and many others and is hardly dated. That said, the sound may be considered dated to those who grew up when the music happened in real time and were inundated for that sound. For those on the club scene in the 80′s, or those grew up with jazz/soul/funk from the 70′s or hip hop however the sound is as contemporary as the “dated” analog synthesizers or vintage digital gear like the Yamaha DX-7, Emulator II or Fairlight CMI for those who create 80′s style music or synth wave.

Mr. Yanow represents a certain old guard of white, older male, jazz critics that generally have a preference for acoustic styles and generally look at jazz through a narrow historical lens I’ve often referred to in personal conversations as “the problematic linear historical jazz narrative”. This perspective is at least to me, a life long jazz fan, seen as the “correct” way of thinking, when there are indeed many different perspectives. What I mean by the narrative being problematic is this: In it’s 100 plus year history, jazz history narratives, generally written by cisgender white males, tend to focus a fairly limited scope of innovators, or important stylists, at the expense of expanding the role of women beyond vocalists. They also avoid significant contributions of musicians that are of marginalized groups like Asian and Asian American musicians or a book that has yet to be written: transgender jazz artists, which as a transgender woman I find particularly troubling. The linear narrative generally looks like this:

Trumpet: Buddy Bolden→ (start of recorded music) pre bop: King Oliver → Louis Armstrong → Bix Beiderbecke→ swing era: Roy Eldridge→ modern jazz: Dizzy Gillespie → Miles Davis → Clifford Brown → Lee Morgan → Freddie Hubbard.

As you can see from my crude brief example… this only covers the 1920’s through the 1960’s, excludes players who had very recognizable personal styles such as Kenny Dorham and Donald Byrd, and players who had significant influences on their peers like Wynton Marsalis, or the late Roy Hargrove, and excludes avant garde game changers like Lester Bowie, Wadada Leo Smith and Don Cherry.

What then occurs is known respected critics like Yanow just fixate on this narrative, and that narrative excludes Bob James beyond a minor mention of him being a “godfather” of smooth jazz. I’m not exactly sure if Mr. Yanow likes hip hop (I’m guessing no) but the impact of “Nautilus” amongst generations of people who were not born (like myself) when the record was made is enormous. In fact, the song is so ingrained in the cultural fabric of millennials such as myself that James himself reverse sampled himself on the piece for a new composition “Submarine” on the album Espresso (2018) and has since licensed his entire catalog for sampling. Numerous other songs like “Take Me To the Mardi Gras” with it’s famous agogo bells have been the source of samples for everyone from Run DMC to the German Eurodance group Snap and their 1990 hit “The Power” (actually stolen from the rapper Chill Rob G but that’s another story) and even Pat Metheny’s classic 1995 track “To The End Of the World”. Also, the recordings of Bob James were huge in the Black community in the 1970’s and 1980’s especially once smooth jazz became huge. Surely Greg Tate would have been able to vouch for the importance of Bob James’ One. As I said at the top this article in itself is pointless and purely from my hive mind, but thanks for reading. All rights of the posted review used in the article belong to the All Music Guide.

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Shizuka Shearn

Shizuka Shearn

A writer. content creator, music lover, hobbyist composer and transwoman