The story of Tappan Zee Records is very much the story of Bob James. The versatile keyboardist, arranger and producer established the Tappan Zee label in 1977 to maximize the crossover success he had already experienced at Creed Taylor’s CTI label. Cherry Red and Robinsongs’ new 2-CD, non-chronologically arranged collection The Very Best of Tappan Zee Records presents an appealing cross-section of Tappan Zee’s finest work from artists like James, Richard Tee, Earl Klugh, and Steve Khan.
The title of Missouri-born, Berklee-trained Bob James’ first outing as a leader, 1963’s Bold Conceptions, could describe his vision for Tappan Zee Records. It also was his last solo recording until 1974. Instead of pursuing stardom as a leader, James busied himself as a keyboardist and arranger, contributing an arrangement to Quincy Jones’ 1969 CTI record Walking in Space which first acquainted him with the Fender Rhodes electric piano. James never planned on becoming so closely identified with the instrument, but his mastery of the Rhodes contributed mightily to the sound of 1970s crossover and jazz fusion. James continued arranging and playing at Creed Taylor’s CTI, which spun off from its A&M Records roots into a true independent. At CTI, James made significant contributions to sets from Grover Washington, Jr., Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson. Outside of Taylor’s label, James added color to recordings by Paul Simon and Neil Diamond and composed the wistful theme to television’s Taxi. But his key roles as arranger and sideman led to his artistic rebirth on the 1974 album One.
Each year between 1974 and 1977, James issued a numbered release, from One to BJ4, arranging, conducting and playing both his own tunes and choice cover versions. As of 1977’s Heads, he parted ways with Taylor, establishing his own Tappan Zee Records under the aegis of Columbia Records. The first iteration of the label (named for a New York bridge) was relatively short-lived, existing through 1980 and releasing roughly 20 LPs. Following that, it became a production company and vehicle for James’ own recordings. The Very Best of Tappan Zee Records includes at least one selection from each of the artists on the label’s roster during that creatively fertile 1977-1980 period.
Much like CTI (the sound of which James defined, along with other key arrangers like Don Sebesky), Tappan Zee was built on irresistible grooves that fused R&B, disco, dance and pop with jazz. While the sound could be fairly said to have anticipated “smooth jazz,” the musicianship was never less than top-notch. The collection’s opening track, James’ brassy and urbane “Tappan Zee,” sets its tone. (It was actually first released on James’ CTI farewell.) In addition to James’ tracks as a leader (including Taxi theme “Angela,” a pair of collaborations with guitarist Earl Klugh, and “Nightcrawler” with a fine Hubert Laws flute solo), he’s playing on numerous other cuts here in addition to having served as producer.
James and his partner Jay Chattaway emphasized young talent, though Latin percussionist Mongo Santamaria released one LP, Red Hot, which is sampled here with a disco reworking of his Herbie Hancock-penned 1963 hit “Watermelon Man.” Guitarist (and son of lyricist Sammy Cahn) Steve Khan inaugurated Tappan Zee with his 1977 album Tightrope, from which the percolating “Some Punk Funk” and a cover of the O’Jays’ ‘Darlin’, Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love)” have been reprised. The latter gave a smooth sheen to the Philly soul classic while still paying homage to the original.
One of the most atypical artists on Tappan Zee was the Allen Harris Band, a rock combo. The group only released one album, from which the attractive vocal ballad “Oceans Between Us” has been taken. Michael Brecker, Hubert Laws, and Bob James all appeared on the LP. Another departure was the “pure jazz” of pianist Joanne Brackeen. Her moody “Let Me Know” opened her trio record, 1979’s Keyed In, with Eddie Gomez (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums).
Funk elements adorned guitarist Wilbert Longmire’s driving “Black is the Color,” one of four tracks from his two Tappan Zee LPs. Pianist Richard Tee, a veteran New York session player, embraced a disco beat on his “First Love,” one of his four selections here. He even sings on a complete reinvention of Aaron Neville’s hit “Tell It Like It Is,” with a tasty solo from Eric Gale.
As at CTI, some Tappan Zee artists reinterpreted pop hits of the day in a jazz style. Tenor saxophonist Mark Colby released two albums on the label. From his debut, this collection includes a slinky cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire” and, on the other end of the spectrum, a breezy “On and On” that nonetheless adds a tension and a widescreen element to Stephen Bishop’s yacht rock favorite. Items like James and Klugh’s “Kari” and Longmire’s “Good Morning” show off the mellower side of Tappan Zee.
This 25-song set has been annotated by Charles Waring and remastered by Alan Wilson. Unfortunately, there are no discographical annotations or personnel listings in the booklet. (The guest musicians were often illustrious CTI veterans including Ron Carter and Idris Muhammad.) You’ll find the track listing and order links for The Very Best of Tappan Zee Records below!
- Tappan Zee – Bob James
- Black is the Color – Wilbert Longmire
- First Love – Richard Tee
- Serpentine Fire – Mark Colby
- Nightcrawler – Bob James
- Darlin’, Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love) – Steve Khan
- Kari – Bob James and Earl Klugh
- On and On – Mark Colby
- Good Morning – Wilbert Longmire
- Tell It Like It Is – Richard Tee
- Let Me Know – Joanne Brackeen
- Watermelon Man – Mongo Santamaria
- Westchester Lady – Bob James
- Jesus Children of America – Richard Tee
- Love’s Holiday – Wilbert Longmire
- Oceans Between Us – The Allen Harris Band
- Brighton by the Sea – Bob James
- Some Punk Funk – Steve Khan
- Skat Talk – Mark Colby
- Every Day – Richard Tee
- Sign of the Times – Bob James
- I’ll Never See You Smile Again – Bob James & Earl Klugh
- Peace of Mind – Mark Colby
- Take Your Time – Wilbert Longmire
- Angela (Theme from Taxi) – Bob James
CD 1, Track 1 from BJ4, CTI 7074, 1977
CD 1, Tracks 2 & 9 from Sunny Side Up, Tappan Zee JC 35365, 1978
CD 1, Track 3 and CD 2, Tracks 2 & 8 from Strokin’, Tappan Zee JC 35695, 1978
CD 1, Tracks 4 & 8 from Serpentine Fire, Tappan Zee JC 35298, 1978
CD 1, Track 5 from Heads, Tappan Zee PC 34896, 1977
CD 1, Track 6 & CD 2, Track 6 from Tightrope, Tappan Zee JC 34897, 1977
CD 1, Track 7 & CD 2, Track 10 from One on One, Tappan Zee FC 36241, 1979
CD 1, Track 10 from Natural Ingredients, Tappan Zee JC 36380, 1980
CD 1, Track 11 from Keyed In, Tappan Zee JC 36075, 1979
CD 1, Track 12 from Red Hot, Tappan Zee JC 35696, 1978
CD 2, Track 1 from Three, CTI 6063, 1976
CD 2, Track 3 from Champagne, Tappan Zee JC 35754, 1979
CD 2, Track 4 from Oceans Between Us, Tappan Zee JC 35364, 1977
CD 2, Track 5 from H, Tappan Zee JC 36422, 1980
CD 2, Tracks 7 & 11 from One Good Turn, Tappan Zee JC 35725, 1979
CD 2, Track 9 from Sign of the Times, Tappan Zee FC 37495, 1981
CD 2, Track 12 from With All My Love, Tappan Zee JC 36342, 1980
CD 2, Track 13 from Touchdown, Tappan Zee JC 35594, 1978