Maestro pianist of soulful funk and smooth grooves, the inimitable Bob James performed eclectic grooves and soulful conversations at his late night gig on opening night of Standard Bank’s Joy of Jazz Festival celebration, 15 – 17 September in Sandton, Johannesburg. He was supported by his stellar cast of seasoned musicians, particularly by his enigmatic Cuban double bassist, Carlitos del Puerto, whom everyone seemed to eye.
Son of Carlos del Puerto, a world famous bassist, 39-year old Carlitos sustained energetic and joyful playing that explains why, at age 17, he was named Best New Jazz Artist at the International Jazz Festival in Havana, Cuba. James’ guitarist, Perry Hughes, and a long-time friend and collaborator, set the audience on fire with his masterful bluesy runs. The band delivered the expected – ages old funky soul grooves echoing the classic Bob James who, at 77 years of age, shows no signs of stopping.
I caught up with James by his hotel pool the morning after that gig.
CM: One view of jazz is improvisation on folk music. Where do you see jazz going world-wide? How is the ‘soul groove’ moving forward?
Bob James Sept 2016
BJ: In my time, jazz represented something unique because the art of improvisation was at the root of the instant creativity emanating from the unpredictability of jazz. A very personal expression grew out of this, and this is the most important aspect of moving jazz. I hope this continues. And socially, what jazz represented at that earlier time is different now. Jazz was the most daring and anti-establishment form of expression back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. The blacks were bursting out angrily about how they were being treated socially in America. The musical expression is different now because the hip-hop has taken over that daringness in confronting social issues in a way. I think hip-hop people are being influenced about what jazz used to be as they end up sampling and using jazz in their music. I’m very lucky because some of them used chunks of my 1970s recordings, and these samples entered their own expressions. I wasn’t directly doing it, but the music resonated with these hip hop artists. It was a fringe benefit for me for their discovering how jazz could move their own expressions. I think there’s hope as long as we stay open to the fact that we won’t be reliving the Dizzy – Coltrane worlds, but other revelations founded on the jazz idiom.
CM: Many jazz artists love to come to South Africa, and they love the music here. What’s so attractive about South African jazz?
BJ: We strive for a groove and we know historically that black artists know how to swing. Here in South Africa there’s a special way rhythms lock in, are danceable, and this is culturally-driven. I respond to this immediately. One elementary school I visited yesterday that offers jazz education performed for me and I was blown away by the artistry and quality these kids showed. They were confident and played naturally in a way in which some of our [American] musicians would like to play, but they simply don’t have that groove in them, no matter how much they might practice.
CM: Sort of like some of our opera singers here who are black, because the singing style comes from their indigenous African musical heritage.
BJ: Yes. You can imagine what I went through, as a white guy in the 1950s – 70s, playing a funk soul groove, inspite of the racial prejudice prevalent in the US at that early time, and trying to get accepted. I had to deal with this and develop confidence. Fortunately, I lived near Detroit which had an active jazz scene back then, so I was able to play with a lot of jazz players there. Also, when I moved to New York City. I got enough encouragement so that several people gave me that badge of acceptance which led to my joining Sarah Vaughn’s band as her music director. I toured with her for quite a few years, if not decades.