Smooth Ride on the Tappan Zee

Bob James

Crafting music that's both sophisticated and accessible has been Bob James's modus operandi for decades. Who could ever forget the theme song, that sweet melody on flute, that he composed for the sitcom Taxi? Even the background music was filled with little twists that made it exponentially better than standard television fare.

For that past quarter of a century, James has been making music with the little turns that his imitators routinely miss. The Grammy-winning keyboardist is one other jazz musicians always acknowledge, for even at his most commercial, James is usually creatively ahead of most of his contemporaries. James deflects the praise, saying, "I never really think about the forefront. I think that the public decides whether you are [in that position] or not."

One of the premier musicians in the smooth-jazz genre, James has always embraced change. The versatile keyboardist has recorded several popular contemporary jazz albums, but has also made three classical albums and even released a bebop album in 1996. He has been co-leading the contemporary jazz group Fourplay with Nathan East, Larry Carlton and Harvey Mason since 1991, and has served as A&R man for Columbia Records ('70s) and Warner Bros. ('90s). He even founded his own label, Tappan Zee (named after a certain bridge in New York City), in 1977.

Though James embraces many different styles, one thing always remains intact: his unique sound. "I didn't even know I had it until people started telling me some years ago that they thought they could recognize me," the musician says. "If you do something like this for so long, you almost can't avoid having your own style. You are the sum total of your little stylistic things and habits and everything else. I look down at my fingers sometimes when I'm playing, and they seem to have a mind of their own."

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Still, James makes a point of not sounding redundant. "I try to keep the things fresh because I like surprise. I like to give people something beyond what they expect. If they're just getting what they expect, then I think I'm shortchanging them."

Spoken like a man who truly understands the economic realities of artistic expression.

Bob James performs at Scott Gertner's Skybar, 3400 Montrose Boulevard, tenth floor, on Friday, June 9. For more information, call (713)520-9688.

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