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Bob James Trio, Espresso

11-01-2018 | By Danny Kaey | Issue 100

Bob James. If you had told me years ago that Bob James of 70s "light" jazz fame was still recording new music in 2018, I'd probably have nodded and said, sure, though I would have wagered that the music would likely be silly place holder stuff, pay the bills sort of at thing. Turns out I was wrong. 2018's Bob James release Espresso is anything but an apostrophe or afterthought. A longtime fan of his music, I own most if not all the hit records as original vinyl issues, and even have his 90s effort as part of jazz super group Fourplay's debut album. Obviously Bob's music would never be confused with Erroll Garner or Thelonious Monk, that said, he certainly earned a legitimate place in the jazz and sub-jazz genre of light jazz, smooth jazz, or cool jazz. Thus, when I was offered a review copy of Bob's latest release on SACD no less, I resolutely nodded and eagerly awaited the copy. Having pinged it in anticipation via a lossless Tidal stream in MQA, my expectations where fairly high.

As a purely light jazz fare release, you clearly hear Bob's staple assets in full glory: though I feel that labeling his music as simply smooth jazz fair is mostly a misnomer, many of the cuts on Espresso bring to light far more complex melodies and harmonic structures than you'd come to expect. On "Shadow Dance" and "Mojito Ride," Bob's piano is accompanied by some synth assistance which lends a certain heft to the harmonically rich compositions. Similarly, "One Afternoon" features orchestral backing that yet again manages to enrich the composition away from typical straight-ahead jazz. "Submarine" is the definite "hip" jazz standout with a funky rhythm, instrumentation and overall pop. "Mr. Magic" is a dynamic test track for any HiFi and unless the track has your feet tapping and chair rocking, a new pair of amps or full range speakers ought to be on your Christmas shopping list.

Sonically, the SACD is a standout... then again virtually all of Bob's music has always been recorded very well with attention to detail. Here the DSD layer offers up greater depth and air in each of the recordings and spanks the otherwise great 16-bit CD layer without much trouble. Where it gets tricky is choosing between the MQA Tidal stream or the DSD layer: no doubt the same masters were used for each, even as the MQA'd version has obviously gone through the full MQA folding process, for which an MQA decoder is of course necessary to unfold in full again. The SACD is an SACD: stick in a capable player and the full resolution immediately becomes available. Certainly my new Playback Designs MPS-8 is in full command and authority here with dynamic richness and slam that frankly leaves me stumped at times. A formal review is forthcoming, but be forewarned: Andreas Koch's new player could well be the best digital you can get your hands on today. Simply put, this Bob James SACD rocks. A+++