Bob James doesn't play in Los Angeles very often, so Friday night's program at the Universal Amphitheatre had all the advance trappings of a special event. And when both James and Diane Schuur (who opened the show) won Grammy Awards earlier in the week, the evening's glow of achievement seemed assured.
Remarkably enough, that's pretty much the way it turned out. James has long been one of the most musical performers to work in the jazz/fusion/rock/funk crossover arena. His method--amply demonstrated in Friday's program on "Obsession," the title track on his newest Warners Bros. album--uses crackling, very danceable rhythm patterns as the basis for virtually every piece. But James doesn't stop there.
While the foundation laid down by drummer Yogi Horton and bassist Gary King was as hot and contemporary as one could possibly ask for, James' keyboard solos--on both "acoustic" and electric pianos--were in the jazz mainstream. The combination of styles made for an intriguing, and surprisingly successful musical mix.
James was partnered in the front line by the high flying soprano and tenor saxophones of Kirk Whalum, who seemed determined to test the outer sound limits of his instruments. His sometimes too-frenzied rips and runs finally came into focus on the atmospheric "Maputo," when Whalum's tenor and James' piano took a rare, but timely break from the continuous rhythmic momentum to indulge in a playful exchange of gospel-like call and response.
Schuur's opening 45-minute set stressed her strengths while minimizing her weaknesses. Her frequent recent appearances in the Southland have made it clear that she is a performer who stresses sound over story. Sliding easily from pure high bell tones to a growling low register, she was the very model of the jazz singer as instrumentalist. But only in the obviously passionately felt "Amazing Grace" did she bring both words and music together, and revealed the complete musical artist she is capable of becoming.