Bob James’ album Three (his third on the CTI label, of course) completes a trifecta of records that influenced the development of the smooth jazz genre and also became major sources of hip hop samples.
by Marshall Bowden
A lot of music fans, even deep ones, wouldn’t be able to pick pianist Bob James out of a lineup of musicians. But anyone who listens carefully to hip hop and electronic music will recognize some of the grooves, because James’ work, especially on his first three albums, has been frequently sampled by producers. I’ve loved these albums since hearing them shortly after their release. At that time I was around fourteen or fifteen years old and was heavily into jazz fusion. I played in the high school jazz band and went to Berklee College of Music when I graduated, and I listened to much more straight jazz than the average high schooler, but I loved the new bands that were bringing jazzy playing and more complex arrangements to rock and funk.
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James was playing on CTI records and it got to the point where label head Creed Taylor offered him a chance to cut his own records as a leader. One, Two, and Three were recorded and released in 1974, 1975, and 1976 respectively. They all have something to recommend them, and I’m looking for vinyl copies of all three, but I have a special soft spot for Three, by which time James was playing more of a funky dance groove than ever. Curiously, Bob James/Three is somewhat less sampled than the other two records, oddly enough, but one reason for this may be the atmospheric quality of some of the other tracks that have been heavily sampled.
There was absolutely no let down between James’ first two CTI albums and this one in terms of musicians or quality of the material. Grover Washington Jr. is all over Three, playing tenor and soprano saxophones as well as the tin whistle parts on ‘Women of Ireland’ and ‘Jamaica Farewell.’ He plays a powerful tenor solo on the opener, James’ jazz/funk arrangement of ‘One Mint Julep’ as well as “Storm King.” His blowing on these tracks cuts straight through James’ string and horn arrangements, providing a burst of energy at just the times when it is needed.
Most of the guitar work on Three is provided by the underrated (in my opinion) Eric Gale and Hugh McCracken. Both have resumes that put them in the top echelon of studio guitarists. If you like a smoother variety of funk/jazz fusion, (but not so smooth as George Benson, say) check out Gale’s album Ginseng Woman (which James produced). It’s actually a decent companion piece to the Bob James material. Gale drops a tight, economical solo on ‘Women of Ireland,’ and helps McCkracken power “Storm King” and “Westchester Lady.”
Most of the bass is handled by Gary King with a young Will Lee stepping up for ‘Westchester Lady’ and ‘Storm King,’ and drums are tastefully played by Harvey Mason throughout, with the exception of ‘One Mint Julep,’ which features Andy Newmark. You can tell that ‘One Mint Julep’ was recorded separately from many of the sessions for the album’s other tracks because it features a number of different players.
The star of the show here is “Westchester Lady,” a track that has been sampled a bunch of times by artists that include Adam F, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince (twice), Massive Attack, and Luther Vandross. It sounds exactly like the 1970s, but the way the horn and rhythm sections interlock and the judicious use of the string section make it a small masterpiece. I’d definitely put this on my top 50 OG fusion tracks.
(“A Little Jazz” starts at the sample).
“Storm King” also has a number of samples, including New Edition’s “Hit Me Off” and “Alwayz Into Somethin'” by N.W.A.
Another, extra-musical reason that Bob James samples have become such a part of hip-hop music’s rich history is that, unlike many other artists, he has always remained open to the idea of his records being sampled. He still receives a few such requests each year, and while he acknowledges that it has slowed down a bit in the past few years, the fact that he still receives requests to sample music that he created forty-four years ago is amazing as well as a testament to the quality of these recordings.
Another element in the mystique behind One, Two, and Three is the CTI label itself. Creed Taylor formed the label after his stints creating unique sounds and looks for A&M and Impulse!, and in many ways, the label can be considered the full flowering of Taylor’s jazz aesthetic. The label had access to a large number of first-rate instrumentalists who could be recombined in any number of ways to create different sounds for different leaders’ albums.
And then there is the beautiful cover art, much of it by photographer Pete Turner, that helped define the label’s visual aesthetic. James’ first three albums are no exception, but their cover art was done by other photographers. Three‘s black cover featuring a prism breaking light into a rainbow is immediately reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, released in 1973. The photograph was created by Richard Alcorn, who also shot covers for Grover Washington Jr and Esther Phillips albums.
Some music writers suggest that the history of smooth jazz started with Grover Washington’s CTI recordings and with George Benson’s ‘Breezin’. I think that misses the mark. “Breezin'” was released in 1976, the same time as Bob James’ Three. The creation of Philadelphia International Records in 1970 laid a lot of the groundwork for the genre that would become smooth jazz. The work of Billy Paul between 1970-1973 is soul music by virtue of Paul’s impassioned vocals, but the musical setting provides the DNA for a smooth instrumental sound.
MFSB, Philadelphia International’s house band, boasted an enormous array of musical talent that could be called upon at any time to create the Philadelphia ‘smooth soul’ sound as a backing band for the label’s many talented vocalists. These guys could play straight jazz, cool jazz, funk, jazz rock fusion, soul, and R&B. Because many of their recordings are created as dance records, there tend to be more uptempo numbers than slow ones, but the overall sound of some of the arrangements point the way towards the building blocks of smooth jazz. As luck would have it, I was given a copy of their 1976 album Summertime recently, and I found it a perfectly enjoyable listen.
Certainly the recordings of CTI and Bob James are part and parcel of the road to a hushed, gentle type of music that retains the instrumentation and general elements of jazz while borrowing song structures and instrumental textures, as well as production techniques, from pop music. By the time Bob James released his three album sequence other artists, like Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack were writing and recording original songs that utilized the same aesthetic. The genre started getting tagged ‘quiet storm’ after the 1975 release of Smokey Robinson’s album and song by the same name.
Eventually the developments of Philadelphia International and CTI would turn into the genre of smooth jazz as well as influencing the future of R&B. As with many musical styles that develop organically from various musical, social, and political influences, the vital music of its founders eventually developed into a formula that robbed the music of its freshness and ability to excite listeners. But in that mid-70s that time was still a few years down the road.