Bob James Trio - "Explosions" (Issued by ESP Records (USA) 1965, Re-issued by GET BACK Records Italy 2001)

From Aural Innovations #18 (January 2002)

I've always enjoyed the opening card for the TV show "Taxi"! The cool Fender Rhodes piano vamp backing track underneath the neat shots from the 59th Street Bridge of Manhattan on a sunny morning, the old beat up Checker Cab (shot from the front) were evocative media symbols of NYC in the late 70s (unfortunately, I couldn't stand the rest of the show, with it's weak acting, lousy scripts, and stereotype NYC accents adopted by the cast!). The theme became a top-ten hit in 1979, composed by former 60s Avante-Garde pianist Bob James, who had by then faded into the NYC/Los Angeles studio stock of commercial musicians. This recording is quite far from the muzak-style he eventually adopted (and as I recall, hasn't had a significant hit recording with since).

James first gained notoriety in 1961. Known for closing performances of his piano works by smashing a huge glass plate, he was often compared rather unfavorably to Cecil Taylor! Actually, his piano playing was quite accomplished and distinctive, as this re-issue of his first recording by GET BACK Records shows. Originally recorded in 1964(!) by Bernard Stollman's ESP-Disc Records, it is a strong example of the evolution of a mixture of the concepts of European and African-American Avante-Garde Piano techniques and harmonic material first dealt with by the so-called "third Stream Jazz movement, popular in the late 50s/early 60s.

Anchored by Bassist Barre Phillips, and Drummer/percussionist Robert Pozar, the music explodes with both vitality and subtle introspection. James seems to be heavily influenced by the "Third Stream" Pianisms of Ran Blake and Lennie Tristano, rather than Taylor, whilst Pozar's percussion work is ALWAYS interesting (he disappeared from the music scene about 1968 after recording with Noah Howard, Sirone, and Bill Dixon, and has remained inactive since then). Phillips' is a unique voice on the Bass, and uses his individual sounds completely in conjunction with the others.

The LP does contain some clichés' like the smashing glass and music concrete' sounds on some of the tracks; occasionally, James has a few difficulties resolving the harmonic progressions he's worked his way into! Yet throughout there is a spirit of discovery that's quite refreshing, and the sense of musical optimism pervades the recording!

While not a recording that's essential to the understanding of Free Jazz, it is a pleasant reminder that musicians don't always have to engage in writing and recording Pop Bullshit! Once again, bravo to GET BACK Records for the beautiful pressings and packaging of these re-issues. My personal recommendation is that they re-issue recordings by Reed legend Giusseppi Logan!

Note: In 1986, James reverted to playing Jazz Standards in a trio, which includes the amazing Christian Mac Bride on Bass. James has publicly dissed the above recording, claiming it as "youthful Indiscretion" Better his youthful folly than yet another recording of the Neo-Con Jazz played for now mature "Reagan Youth" and pretentious Baby-Boomers "too old to Rock & Roll!"

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Reviewed by Doug Walker

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