Since I’m back focusing on album covers of late, ones that featured the color black as a platform, along with Jazz Fusion and the 70s once more, I thought to select a music-work related to all three. I can’t think of something more fitting to end the week of my birth with than the well-established pianist, composer, and arranger, Bob James, and his Westchester Lady.
One of the early founders of what came to be called ‘Smooth Jazz’, this Missourian had a well-defined way with melody to become one of the vital jazz keyboard artists of the turbulent decade. James gathered my ears to this unique blend of genres. Collected many of his albums, too, and once caught him in concert over at the Universal Amphitheatre (a venue sadly scheduled to be demolished this year, all care of Harry Potter).
His third album, simply titled Three and released in 1976, peaked my interest even more for what seemed his continuing vanguard with contemporary jazz and finger-popping arrangements. The latter causing cross-over with varied radio stations, especially here in L.A., I recall. It was his most solidly satisfying of his early collections, I think.
Also, Three‘s artwork (photo by Richard Alcorn and seen pictured above) likely contained the most direct tribute of the seminal The Dark Side of the Moon album to that point, particularly with its prism effect amidst the inky black of the LP’s cover. Amazingly, this work incorporated only five tracks total (six, if you happen to live in Japan), but what a set they were. Care of Allmusic:
“The five tracks here reflect his obsession with hard, danceable grooves that take as much from the soul-jazz book as they do his years with CTI. Using many of the same session players he bonded with at his former label — including Eric Gale, Hugh McCracken, Hubert Laws, Will Lee, and Harvey Mason — and a large host of stellar horn players (among them Lew Soloff and Jon Faddis), James offers five selections of simple but fun jazz-pop.”
The late and still very much missed Grover Washington, Jr. was featured prominently on Bob’s album and represented his stellar saxophone quite well within the ensemble gathered. Even his tin whistle in one of the great make-out songs of the era, the ethereal piece that still is Women of Ireland, left a mark.
Yet, it still came down to Westchester Lady as the marquee set on the entire album. One that blazed Bob James’ popularity on pop, R&B, and of course, Jazz charts as a result back then. Sampled a number of times in the years since by rap artists, it’s been described as “a classy Jazz funk/fusion anthem” by some, but most notably by Bob James himself:
“The tune, the hook, and main melody of this one was just a jumping point for improvisation. At this point I was really into trying new things and improvising almost wildly at points. I mean, of course improvising has always been an important part of my compositions, but I felt like I now truly had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I was always looking for schematic material to get a song started, and this song did take a while. But I was real happy with the results when we finished this one because it took longer than some other songs we had done by then. For me, “Westchester Lady” is a real signature piece. I love this song.”
Westchester Lady proved to be Bob James’ second most popular track and a success in a long and distinguished musical career. Preceding his Angela tune, which was used as the theme song for 1978-83 TV comedy series Taxi, it still sounds fresh today. Well, at least to these now almost six decade old ears of mine. Certainly, the mid-70s track remains playfully distinct compared to what falls into the genre of music that grew out of jazz fusion these days. Thankfully so.
I hope you enjoy.