Bob James

Morning, Noon, & Night

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As one review once put it, James was putting the "smooth" into "jazz" long before the genre had its formal name, and it was fun to take stock of his lengthy quarter-century-plus recording career with 2001's double CD Restoration: The Best of Bob James. Hardly about to rest on his laurels, he's chugging ahead in 2002 with a new Fourplay album (Heartfelt) and this likeable, diverse effort. The idea seems to be to return to the spirit and groove of his classic albums of the '70s and early '80s, but play those licks in the company of latter-day top stars (Rick Braun, Dave Koz, Keiko Matsui, Paul Jackson, Jr., Chuck Loeb). And let's not forget the groovemeisters Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and Will Lee (bass), so hip and sly on mood-swinging tunes like "Baby Cakes." Considering that the disc mostly focuses on sharply composed, tightly played, and slickly produced tracks by genre hitmakers like Loeb and Paul Brown, it seems curious that James would open with a somewhat alienating, experimental track ("Street Smart"). It opens with scratches, ambience, and darting piano runs that scream "avant-garde," before getting into a heavier groove, classical piano ideas, and finally moving into a brief big band swing section. It's interesting, but all over the place. Loeb's tune, "Just One Thing," is the complete opposite, a crisp, dreamy, light funk piece perfect for smooth jazz radio; Jamesand Loeb make good studio bedfellows with a smart, witty repartee and tandem energy. The title track is another excellent middle-of-the-road piece, with Dave Koz providing the genuine smiles and extra commercial melodic thrust. "Hands On" is a bouncy jam piece that evokes the loose energy of James' early albums. And labelmate Braun helps bring the romantic "Five O'Clock Chateau" to a deeper place full of soul and energy. Some of the other tunes seem more artsy and fusion-minded, but all of them have a singular focus. Maybe that's the point -- to provide in a new setting the kind of overview of James' multiple approaches that was captured on the best-of package.

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