Over four days in December of 1979, pianist Bob James assembled three different bands to play (and record) at three legendary venues in New York City to showcase his own diversity as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. The Bottom Line, Town Hall, and Carnegie Hall all offered different aspects of James' approach to jazz and popular music. The Bottom Line band is a smooth and funky sextet that includes saxophonists Wilbert Longmire and Mark Colby, James, drummer Idris Muhammad, bassist Gary King, and guitarist Hiram Bullock. The Town Hall gigs featured a larger band that included three pianists: James, Joanne Brackeen, and Richard Tee, as well as drummers Billy Hart and Steve Gadd and bassist Eddie Gomez. Finally, the Carnegie Hall show featured a yet larger orchestra that included Tom Scott, Earl Klugh, and Bullock on guitars, Muhammad, King, Tom Browne, Jim Pugh, and Dave Taylor, and more.
Musically, the double LP ranges from the more popular contemporary jazz of the period such as "Angela (Theme from Taxi)" and "Touchdown," jazz and classical standards (including Benny Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy," and Georges Bizet's "Farandole (L'Arlisienn Suite #2)"),and even pop hits such as Boz Scaggs "We're All Alone." The Bottom Line material only includes two performances --the aforementioned "Angela" and "Westchester Ladies." Separated by the two LPs and sequenced to reflect dynamic and aesthetic differences, they are righteously intimate and groovy and truly reflect their environment. The Carnegie Hall cuts are the most satisfying because of James' killer charts. The nearly 12-minute Scaggs' tune goes into a wild interlude that distills everything form pop balladry to jazz-funk to big-band wail. Elsewhere, the reading of James' "Kari," that closes the second LP reveals just how intimate a larger group can be with a lovely showcase for Klugh and Bullock's collective sense of counterpoint, even as the piece moves and shimmers with a lithe Caribbean-influenced rhythm. The highlight from the Town Hall gigs is James' stellar "The Golden Apple," which clocks in at over ten minutes. The three pianists really get to interact here in the various modes at work in the core of the tune. While it's true that some of James recordings sound dated because of their production, All Around the Town sounds as fresh in the 21st century as it did when it was issued. It serves as a great primer for the post-CTI/Columbia James.