Bob James was putting the "smooth" into "jazz" long before it was an official format, and as an elder statesman, the keyboardist continues to be one of the most consistent slow groove crowd-pleasers around. But some of the most inspired moments of his career have come from key collaborations with peers from his generation like David Sanborn and Earl Klugh. While never straying far from the melodic, pleasant sort of cool he's best known for, on Playin' Hooky, James duets on various tunes with some of the new kids on the charts, from classical guitarist Fareed Haque to trumpeter Rick Braun and the increasingly ubiquitous saxman Boney James (no relation). He even goes the full funky nine yards by using the expertise of Paul Brown, (the soul-oriented producer who helped put Boney on the map) on the most memorable track, "Mind Games." Not surprisingly, the tunes featuring the young blood find James pushing his usual mid-tempo energy into more lively territory -- just as Kirk Whalum helped him achieve on their recent dual album. While hangin' with the youth adds punch (Braun especially impresses with his extended improvisation on "Love in Where") to James' trademark electric piano sounds, every so often -- especially on the Boney cuts -- he runs the risk of coming across as sideman to the fresh talent. Which begs the question, in the playful battle of James vs. James, who will emerge victorious?
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AllMusic Review by Jonathan Widran