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The New Cool of Bob James & Nathan East

Pianist, composer, producer, and godfather of smooth jazz, Bob James has achieved spectacular success as a solo artist and de facto leader of the supergroup, Fourplay. He’s also an accomplished collaborator—his discography includes many award-winning albums with Earl Klugh, David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum, and Korean guitarist Jack Lee.

It’s not surprising that his latest effort pairs James with his Fourplay bandmate, bassist Nathan East. Their unique collaboration, The New Cool, takes the virtuoso elements that distinguish their own albums, mixes it up with Fourplay-style original tunes and serves up a recording that’s naturally, consistently entertaining.

Chris Gero, the founder of Yamaha Entertainment and producer of East’s last album, set James and East in a Nashville recording studio and offered The Nashville Recording Orchestra to the project, which grace several of the album’s compositions. James was Sarah Vaughan’s musical director, and he worked with Quincy Jones and also on Creed Taylor's CTI label. While there, he arranged strings and orchestral accompaniment for all the label’s artists including Grover Washington, Jr. and Hubert Laws. James has a definitive arranging style; the chance to add live strings and woodwinds to a track like the "All Will Be Revealed" elevates The New Cool into classic terrain.

Whether inspired by time and place, James's writing and playing shines on his melodic, original tone poems. Graceful and heartfelt (“Oliver’s Bag” and “Waltz For Judy”), the tunes take on a painterly quality. Where his previous solo records have a jazz/pop sheen, he can also confound expectations with occasional straight-ahead jazz trio records such as 1996’s Straight Up and 2003’s Take It From The Top. Interestingly, The New Cool more closely resembles those albums in terms of quality and purity. James and East trade exquisite phrases on “How Deep Is The Ocean” and “Ghost Of A Chance,” two standards that inspire and push them into fresh, creative territory.

There’s immense pleasure in hearing James play acoustic piano and East drilling down on upright bass, but they understand that songs come in a spectrum of colors, so throughout there’s East’s soft vocalizations and twangy electric bass with James’ electric piano. Singer Vince Gill takes the lead on a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” a surefire radio hit, but the leaders are in their strongest element on the rhythmic swing of “Canto Y La Danza” and especially the last track, “Turbulence,” a welcome closer that sublimates the best, higher-energy compositions of a Fourplay album and ends this great collaboration on a high note despite its premature fadeout.

This article is from the October 2015 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More information.