Bob James is having a very busy fall.
For the past three weeks, the jazz great has been performing all over Japan. The Missouri-born, Michigan-based James was there to premiere his first piano concerto, which he played at the 14th annual Tokyo Jazz Festival, accompanied by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.
“I’ve been working on that piece for, I guess, about a year and a half,” says James, 75, on the phone from his Traverse City home. “So, I had a lot of preparation and excitement to be able to do it.”
The inspiration for this three-movement concerto came years ago, when he traveled to Japan to create new music and perform at concerts that were benefiting the families of victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. “I was trying to create some music that would help raise people’s spirits,” he says. “And I met a lot of people there and was supported a lot, and this was a way of giving back to them by showing them that I was going to work on trying to create a new piece that describes my experience at that time.”
He also toured with his band – the jazz supergroup Fourplay – in East Asia, doing shows in Japan and Korea. With their latest album “Silver” (which will be released in the U.S. in November) being released in those parts, they were touring to both promote the album and celebrate their 25 years together as a group.
“When we first started out, we certainly did not envision that we would still be together 25 years later,” he says of the band, which includes drummer Harvey Mason, bassist Nathan East and guitarist Chuck Loeb. “But it’s a wonderful feeling to realize that we have accomplished that.”
“Silver” also features guest shots from ex-bandmates: former guitarists Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton both wrote and performed on some tunes, while saxophonist Kirk Whalum, who did a show with the band before they hired Loeb, blows his horn on one track.
James returned to the States just in time to see yet another of his releases hit the market. Last Friday, he and Fourplay bandmate Nathan East came with “The New Cool,” a collection of sophisticated jazz that reflects the fluid friendship James has with his longtime collaborator and friend.
“It’s been something that we’ve wanted to do for quite a while,” says James. “Nathan and I will very casually play some duo tunes (during rehearsals). And we were having so much fun, we decided to expand it into a CD project.”
James continues to churn out new music, even though all the funky, jazz fusion compositions he did back in the ’70s (including “Angela,” better known as the theme from the sitcom “Taxi”) have been sampled by so many hip-hop artists, he could just spend his days lounging, living on sampling and licensing checks. Heck, even Madonna recently hit James up about using a riff from his 1975 rendition of Paul Simon’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” (which has been sampled by such hip-hop icons as LL Cool J, Run-DMC and Missy Elliott) for her new tour.
“It seems to be kind of an ongoing phenomenon,” he says. “I am still amazed that people from the hip-hop world are sampling my music. I am flattered and surprised usually, but it’s an ongoing thing. And I think it really gives a lot of young people the opportunity to hear my music or to find out about it, when they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
But even with all the new music and overseas dates taking up most of his time lately, James still squares away some nights to perform for us American folk. Friday night, he’ll be front-and-center on stage at the Carolina Theatre, playing everything from his oft-sampled classics to his Fourplay collaborations to his most recent compositions. From the way James tells it, he mostly does all of this just to remind folk that he’s still around.
“I love making music,” he says. “I certainly have no intention of retiring, and I love to present my music to people who appreciate it. And I’m very much looking forward to returning to North Carolina.”
Who: Bob James, with Paul Brown and Marc Antoine
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Details: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org