U-M alum transcends his smooth jazz beginnings

Patrick Dunn
The Detroit News

Although pianist Bob James is most often associated with smooth jazz, he says that subgenre is just something that "happened" to him and many other musicians in the '70s.

"I was just doing what I have done all my life, just trying to make the best music that I can make, and along the way the music business ... has different requirements," James says.

The Traverse City resident and University of Michigan alum will return to Ann Arbor Saturday for a performance at Hill Auditorium, presented by the University Musical Society. Although he says radio play over the years has emphasized his "smoother" cuts as a solo artist and with the quartet Fourplay, his career has been wide-ranging. James cut his teeth in the mid-'60s backing up legendary jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan, an experience he describes as "a second college education."

Most recently, James released "Quartette Humaine," an album-length tribute to the late jazz luminary Dave Brubeck. For that project, he re-teamed with saxophonist David Sanborn for the first time since 1986's "Double Vision," the best-selling record of both their careers. James describes Sanborn as another artist who's been "typecast" into smooth jazz.

"We deliberately set out to have ("Quartette Humaine") be a different kind of sound, knowing that we wouldn't be played as much in the smooth jazz format, and that turned out to be true," James says. "It didn't get played as much."

One surprising arena where James' work has gotten plenty of play over the years is the world of hip-hop. It's difficult, of course, to count every sample in every hip-hop track, but various counts have crowned James the most sampled artist in hip-hop, or the second most sampled behind James Brown. James says he didn't realize the frequency with which some of his '70s cuts were being sampled until it was already too late to make copyright claims on them.

"I've felt all my career, that from a business standpoint the most valuable thing you have is your copyrights," he says. "And protecting them sometimes is very difficult. So that part, especially during the early era, was the negative side of what went on."

However, he says he eventually became savvier to the hip-hop industry and exercising his copyrights. While he's not a hip-hop fan himself, he says his feelings today about the use of his music are "mostly great."

"It's just shocking to me, but it puts a very, very big smile on my face," he says.

At 74, James says there's still one major career goal he has yet to achieve: writing a classical piano concerto. Although he's about two-thirds of the way through one right now, he's found it "extremely challenging."

"Being a jazz composer is a whole different animal in that what we're only really trying to do is come up with a lovable riff and a little basic structure, and you leave the rest of it to improvisation," he says. "In the classical field, it's all written out. If you write a 20-minute work, you're responsible for all the notes."

Bob James

8 p.m. Saturday

Hill Auditorium

825 N. University, Ann Arbor

Tickets $10-$54

(734) 764-2538