Ford James produces 'Sunlight' for spring

New jazz CD showcases strengths of local artists

Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2002

Smooth saxophone lines interwoven with piano open "Sunlight," a new CD by Juneau jazz musician Ford James.

"Sunlight" is a collection of progressive jazz-fusion instrumentals composed by James, a guitarist and bassist, and recorded in Juneau with local musicians. The recording is a swan song for James, who is leaving Southeast Alaska next week after living in Juneau for seven years, and five in Gustavus before that.

James plans to spend the summer in the Sierra Nevadas of Central California and move to Portland, Ore., in the fall.

"Ideally I'll find a band that needs a bass player and wants material," he said.

James' first jazz recording, "This One Moment," was released in 1999. James composed all the music on both CDs, developing melodies, counterpoint and arrangements and drawing on the strengths of Juneau pianist Robert Cohen and saxophonist Wayne Norlund. Drummer Andy Engstrom also was instrumental, playing and recording the drums in his home studio.

Engstrom, Norlund, Cohen and James performed together last year as the Ford James Quartet. Playing the tunes live allowed them to grow and evolve a bit before they were recorded, James said. But some of the tunes do not lend themselves easily to live renditions by a four-piece band. James would switch between bass and guitar on stage.

"Robert covered the bass parts with his left hand (on the piano) when I played guitar," James said. "And he played some of the guitar figures on some tunes where I played bass."

The foursome spent far more time working together in the recording studio than on stage. The CD was created by layering parts. Although one piece, "Bear on a Rock," is an instrumental showpiece for solo acoustic guitar, most of the tunes feature a number of parts.

"My stuff tends to be dense, and there were only a few tunes on this that had fewer than 20 parts," James said.

That's a big change from James' first experiences recording 25 years ago. A fan of jazz and rock since childhood, James grew up in a musical household and studied jazz, composition and bass in college in California. In those pre-digital days, layering a dozen parts would be an epic and daunting task.

"The big thing then was a four-track studio with tape," he said. "We'd edit by cutting the tape with razors."

"Sunlight" was recorded digitally on a laptop computer. James said he tried to capture the musicians' performance with a live feeling, and balance that with recording tools that enabled him to correct mistakes, polish the arrangements and process the sound.

"There's a bit of danger with the power of those tools, wanting to fix everything and feeling that nothing is ever good enough," he said. "You can fix stuff forever and strangle the life out of it."

James cited the Steely Dan album "Aja" from the late 1970s as one of the greatest recordings of all time, a project that captured virtuosic, soulful playing with state-of-the-art studio manipulation.

"It had the perfect blend of live feel with studio polish," he said.

James said some of the compositions on "Sunlight" go back to the early 1980s. James worked as a professional bassist on the rock circuit in Northern California throughout college, eventually dropping out to play music full-time. In the early 1980s he began touring and recording with folk musician Kate Wolf, who had a successful music career until her death in 1985. James spent the ensuing years traveling in India and Asia and working in Japan.

He moved to Gustavus in 1990 and built a home, continuing to compose and develop as a musician. He moved to Juneau in 1995 to pursue more music opportunities and work with computers for the state.

"Sunlight" was recorded over the past six months, but some of the tunes came out of his time in Gustavus and travels in Asia.

"The next thing I do will be very different," he said. "Maybe an acoustic CD, or something more simple."

Others musicians on "Sunlight" include percussionists Mike Fieldhouse and Dale McFarland and flutist Rick Alberico. The CD was mastered by James and Mark Alton at Gold Street Studios in Juneau. "Sunlight" is available at Capitol Records and through James' Web site,

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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