Thursday, June 07, 2007

Angels of Shanghai

Angels of Shanghai
By Bob James

It’s been quite sometime since Bob James recorded for the avant-garde ESP label. Since that time he has embraced a smooth jazz rep, although he participated in many successfully funky CTI sessions in the 1970’s with the likes of Hank Crawford, Hubert Laws, and Ron Carter. He also contributed to the under-appreciated Serpico soundtrack. His recent release, Angels of Shanghai, is interesting as an ambitious collaboration with traditional Chinese musicians, but will be more pleasing to his established fan base than other listeners.

Angels starts with the relentlessly upbeat “Celebration.” It is a catchy melody with a pleasing guitar solo from Jack Lee. James does meld his group well with his Chinese colleagues, including Li Li on Pipa; Xie Tao on Gu Zheng; Lu Cong and Zhao Qi on Dizi; and Ma Jia Jun on er-hu. Together, they are heard to best effect on sweeping pieces like “Theme ‘Onara’ from ‘Dae Jang Keum’” and “The Magic Paintbrush” as well as the delicate “Angels’ Theme: The Invention of Love.” At times though, the percussion is overly mechanical, overwhelming the musicians on tunes like “Butterfly Lovers.”

There are moments on Angels that are emblematic of James’ career. The syrupy vocal track “Endless Time” is a pop mistake. More interesting is his recasting of his famous theme for the show Taxi as “Angela with Purple Bamboo,” which blends a sensitive arrangement with a slightly funky sounding electric piano.

Those looking for improvisational fire will know Angels is not for them. James deserves credit for tackling an ambitious project though. At its best, it would make excellent soundtrack music, in the best tradition of the genre.