On Angels of Shanghai, pianist, composer and producer Bob James and his band -- drummer/percussionist Harvey Mason, guitarist Jack Lee, bassist/vocalist Nathan East -- team with China' best and brightest playing traditional instruments to create a meld of Western smooth jazz and Asian folk music that relies on improvisation as much as it does composition and arrangement to produce what will undoubtedly become a touchstone in his long career. Fans of James' intensely lyrical and light music shouldn't be alarmed by this step toward the East at all. None of that has been lost, as evidenced by the opening cut "Celebration," where one of his signature themes, with its breezy harmonic interpolations, is laid next to a syncopated melody. On "Gulangyu Island," which follows, drum loops, hand percussion and piano are added to the er-hu, pipa, guzheng and dizi, to create (what else?) but a Chinese version of a James composition! That's all good news. The exoticism of this recording doesn't overwhelm, and if anything, James takes more chances here than he has in decades. His solos, made up of hypnotic runs and subtle, bluesy arpeggios contrast well with the modes and scales of Asia. "Endless Time" with East on lead vocals, is a pop song with beautiful pipa additions, but it's still far too lightweight for anything but adult contemporary radio. But they get back on track with "Theme 'Onara' (from 'Daejangkeum')" that is simply majestic in its arrangement and execution; James understands the regal aspects of the Chinese folk tradition. By marrying them to contemporary jazz he extends the reach of both musics seamlessly. "Dream with Me" begins as a strange and haunting atmospheric piece that marries the pipa and er-hu to a skeletal electronic loop that touches on but never quite gets to funk -- even with the breakbeats programmed in, the most beautiful things here are the "Angels Theme" with its pipa, er-hu and guzheng lines reigning over the piano and basslines, and the crystalline cover of "Butterfly Lovers" by Gang Chen and Zhan Hao He. The set ends with a new version of "Angela (Theme from Taxi)," with the new instruments woven right into the mix, and it's as beautiful and even more haunting than the original. It becomes a contemporary soul-jazz tune with its melody woven right inside a new harmonic arrangement by James. With Angels of Shanghai, James has attempted to take his audience with him into new terrains. Let's hope they follow because this is the most ambitious contemporary smooth jazz has ever been. Those who can handle their jazz "lite" would be wise to give this a shot because of the gentle exhilaration it provides the listener. Fans of unadorned Chinese folk music will find this blasphemy, no doubt, as will most "pure" jazz fans, but it's their collective loss.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek