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REVIEW: The Bob James Trio at 50 Years of Music Making (Dakota Jazz Club)

The many faces of jazz keyboardist, arranger, and music producer Bob James, whose namesake trio headlined at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis last night and returns this evening.

Last night, the Bob James Trio played the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, almost a half century after the ensemble won the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival. The ensemble leader, jazz keyboardist Bob James, proved more than a one-hit wonder. Having attracted the attention of one of the judges, the great jazz arranger Quincy Jones, James was soon introduced to jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, and became her pianist.

Vaughan was not only one of the greatest jazz singers of the age, but also an accomplished pianist, who was more than willing to teach her new accompanist what was needed to be a good sideman. As James noted, “There was something about being an accompanist, being a supporting pianist for a lead singer or a lead instrumentalist that made me comfortable. I felt that I was good at it and in many ways I like it better being the supporting person than I did just being stuck out there in front of my own trio.”

James speculated that his jazz supergroup Fourplay (original lineup: James, Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason, Nathan East) worked so well because none of the four “led”; they were all sidemen for the group.

Last night, however – 50 years from his time with Vaughan and more than 50 albums later in his discography – James was clearly the leader, bringing his eponymous trio to The Dakota. The lineup counted James on keyboard, Michael Palazzolo on bass, and James Adkins on drums. The set gave a good representation of James’ long playlist: starting the evening with “Bulgogi” (from his 2018 album Espresso), “Feel Like Makin’ Love” (he accompanied Roberta Flack on that hit, and then recorded his own instrumental version), and the funky and upbeat “Night Crawler” (from 1977’s Heads”).

Other highlights of the Trio’s performance included an elegant and upbeat “Topside” (again from Espresso) and a new arrangement of “Nautilus” (originally on 1974’s One).  As James noted, he has, to his own surprise, become a go-to among Hip Hop artists for sampling, and “Nautilus” alone has been sampled an astonishing 366 times.

Palazzolo and Adkins had featured solos on almost every song. Palazzolo displayed simple cool mastery, while Adkins showed a range between near-fury (solos ending with exultant shouts) and perhaps the quietest drum solo I have ever heard, all of this with James looking on approvingly like a proud grandfather.  James occasionally let his own flair go on display: on one song, playing keyboard with one hand while playing the piano with the other; and on another song, playing notes from the two far ends of the piano keyboard to accompany an Adkins solo. The performance closed, perhaps inevitably, with James’ biggest hit: “Angela”, the theme from the television show Taxi.

James has a new album about to be released: Feel Like Making LIVE! The album, which will officially be released on January 28 but was for sale at the concert, counts 14 of his works from live performances; Palazzolo plays on bass, but with Billy Kilson on drums. One song (and video) on the album has already been released as a single: a wonderful, pared-down version of Elton John’s “Rocket Man”. (Unfortunately, not part of the evening’s Dakota set.)

There is still a chance to see this superstar perform!:  Bob James and his Trio return to The Dakota for two more shows this evening, at 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm.

Brian Bix