KEYBOARD WIZ Bob James is as successful a link as exists between the worlds of pop and jazz. His credentials include stints with Sarah Vaughan, Stanley Turrentine and Freddie Hubbard, though he may be best known for writing and performing the theme song for "Taxi." He's probably found the most security, however, in a string of successful fusion albums that includes his latest release, "12."
There may be pictures of James at 12 on the back cover, but what's inside is James the shrewd commercial manipulator, a man who knows that, in 1985, rhythm and riff are more important than melody. That's most evident on "Courtship," the official theme for last summer's Olympic basketball events.
Sounding like a cross between Vince Guaraldi's ebullient pianistics and Maynard Ferguson's punchy horn section, "Courtship" is catchy as all-get-out, but that's all. Nobody's going to leave the game humming it. Same with "No Pay, No Play," which, like everything else on "12," benefits from the young but stellar players James has gathered around him, including drummer Yogi Horton, bassists Gary King and Marcus Miller and saxophonist Kirk Whalum.
The only memorable cut is "Legacy," a pastoral ballad playing James' liquid keyboards against Dave Brown's electric and acoustic guitars.
Another side of James' musical personality is heard in his other new album, "Rameau," a series of pieces by the Baroque master arranged for synthesizers and other electronic instruments. Surprisingly, it works; the best pieces tend to be the least adorned, such as "Rondeau Gracieu" and "Les Niais de Sologne."
Starting off with the harpsichord sound of "Fanfarinette," James layers Rameau's compositions in aesthetically pleasing ways, only once in a while succumbing to a tendency to overload the arrangements. A different fusion, but really a more pleasing one, since Rameau was pretty good on melody. BOB JAMES -- "12" (Columbia Tappan Zee FC39580) and "Rameau" (CBS Masterworks Digital IM39540); appearing at Blues Alley, this Friday through Sunday.