"Keith Jarrett was a huge influence - partly because I'd been listening to Oscar Peterson before him and it expanded so profoundly my understanding of what jazz could be"
He was ticked off in college for not learning his standards - "the late Jeff Clyne used to say 'You've got to take this more seriously!" - but it doesn't seem to have done any harm. Peter James's second CD Soul Story was widely mentioned in despatches a couple of years back (reviewed JJ February 2012). He's an impressive enough pianist, with a big, capacious style that often implies something larger hiding behind the chords and, indeed, there is a strong spiritual underpinning. "I believe music has its origins in God's creative design and at its best can inspire, console or invigorate the soul. I'm not setting out to write 'religiously themed' music - if I have any objective, it's simply to write 'honest music' - digging out the music that I hear and trying not to add or subtract from it."
He was born in Scarborough in 1973 and came to music through a parental record collection, "everything from Monk to Messiaen". He played violin at school but went to the Royal Academy to study piano and took the jazz course with the late Graham Collier and Michael Garrick. It was at the academy that he met Jeremy Brown and Thomas Hooper, the other two legs of the trio which made its debut in 2008 with Visions and Vistas (Mulberry Tree). He has worked in music education and as an MD in a church. He's appeared with Christian Garrick on a number of occasions and wrote Passion Suite (also on Mulberry Tree) for the Kairos Ensemble. The market is saturated with piano trios, which makes it all the more remarkable that this one stands out. "It was a weighty step, moving on from being a sideman but I felt I had something to say and might as well get on with it. The dialogue is probably kept more immediate with just the three of us but it can work within a bigger canvas too. In fact one of my favourite albums is Vince Mendoza's Epiphany - it's a great example of weaving improvising musicians together with an orchestra."
It's not immediately obvious where James's piano playing roots lie. More Paul Bley than Bill Evans, though? "Funnily enough I've just listened for the first time to Paul Bley's. Open To Love (1973) and been absolutely blown away by it. There are various pianists that have definitely impacted me en route - including Bill Evans and Herbie. Keith Jarrett was also a huge influence - partly because I'd been listening to Oscar Peterson before him and it expanded so profoundly my understanding of what jazz could be. Dollar Brand, Monk, Esbjorn Svensson, our own John Taylor, or more recently guys like Tord Gustavsen, Marcin Wasilewski or Jef Neve I would cite as compass points. "I really appreciated Mike Garrick's input at college. He was very affirming of whatever I brought to the table. We'd exchange compositions and simply play through them for an hour or so. I'm grateful to him - as are many - for his musical legacy.
"I love hearing music that at the same time destroys and rebuilds your musical universe - that may or may not be jazz, of course. Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose compositions are full of blood and guts, expresses a kind of spirituality which per-haps emphasises 'earthy incarnation' more than 'transcendence'. My own music sounds nothing like his, but his attitude towards the role of music and music making certainly resonates with mine." Peter James certainly doesn't trade in blood and guts, but there's nothing perfumed and aery-faery about his music, either. It's music grounded in the tradition, but which doesn't treat music history as a prison. You don't have to lick an altar rail to enjoy this music. It works at whatever level you're at.
Brian Morton, Jazz Journal Magazine, April 2014
James has a lovely melodic pianistic touch and an increasingly ambiguous approach to form; he also has that special ability to tell a story. Beautifully melodic and quite captivating.
Duncan Heining, Jazz UK Magazine, Feb/Mar 2012
Another highly rewarding record from Peter James and his men
How would you separate this, or its predecessors Visions and Vistas, from a crowded field? The clue's maybe in the two titles, for James's music isn't just another random shuffle of the virtual jukebox - original composition here, standard there, Nick Drake tune after that, then an improv, another "original", something by Radiohead, and, er, All The Things You Are to pad it out - but driven by obvious genuine spirituality and ethics. If it's hard to demonstrate how such qualities are made audible, it's equally hard to miss them in the listening. This is serious music, not without lightness and humour, and the title suite, which might have been sententious and pi, is both clever and alert to nuance. Even the Bach pastiche of Headlong isn't overdone and quickly gives place to something more contemporary. Likewise the Hammond is for "orchestral" filling and not overused. The music has muscle as well as uplift and it isn't studio-scared but uses the resources with real imagination. Another highly rewarding record from Peter James and his men.
Brian Morton, Jazz Journal, Feb 2012
Duncan Heining gives Soul Story a four star review in Jazzwise magazine and lists it among his top 10 releases of the year.
Peter James has learned an important lesson from listening to Keith Jarrett - the building of a strong melodic line upon a firm rhythmic foundation allows the musician to tell stories. It's the musical equivalent of the writer's narrative structure. Two things immediately impress about James - firstly, his beautiful pianistic touch and, secondly, the quality of his writing. In fact, Soul Story is a real advance on the pianist's debut, Visions and Vistas. The sheer confidence of the trio now allows greater ambition perhaps, as on the four part title track. There is a willingness as well to explore a more ambiguous approach to form. Listen, for example, to the opening Ocean's Lament and its heartfelt plea on behalf of these last wildernesses or the lovely Everyday Mountains. Sometimes I wonder if I'm too concerned by things like content, form and vision, forgetting there should be reference to pleasure as well. I enjoyed Soul Story on so many levels, unexpectedly so. Thinking person's jazz with real soul. Tell me more, Mr. James. ****
Duncan Heining, Jazzwise, Dec 2011
"Beautifully crafted compositions ...great interplay throughout this stellar recording" Claire Martin, Jazz Line-Up, Radio 3
(Full radio transcript:)
To start things off pianist Peter James who describes his own personal journey as an exploration of the tensions between form and freedom aiming within his compositions to leave from room for the unexpected whilst being mindful of the individual players he's writing for. His rhythm section are pals from his days at the Royal Academy of Music - Jeremy Brown on bass and Thomas Hooper on the drums. So from his recently released second album, Soul Story, let's hear Headlong...Peter James Trio with Headlong from their new release which is out on the Mulberry Tree Music label and that track, written by Peter is one of the eleven beautifully crafted compositions on this CD and there's great interplay with his band members Jeremy Brown on bass and Thomas Hooper on drums throughout this stellar recording.
Jazz Line-Up, BBC Radio 3, 6th November 2011
Soul Story is the second album from the Peter James Trio, and it's an outstanding work. Its combination of superb musicianship and keyboardist James' beautifully-crafted tunes ensures that the band can lay claim to a place in the top flight of piano trios. The passion and melodic sensibility displayed across the album further strengthens this claim.
All three musicians studied together during the early '90s at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and their mutual understanding and empathy comes over strongly. Soul Story follows on from the Trio's 2008 debut, Visions And Vistas (Mulberry Tree Music), and the additional experience gained over the intervening years is put to good use by each member of the group. James is the composer, but bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Thomas Hooper do much to give the music life. The result is a genuine ensemble recording.
The trio is equally adept at upbeat tunes with a swing and slower, more reflective, numbers. "Everyday Mountains" and "Warmth Of The Morning Sun" showcase the musicians' gentler side. So, too, does the delightful "If The Hills Told Their Secrets," an excellent example of the trio's strength as an ensemble. It begins with Brown's melodic but melancholy arco bass, Hooper driving the rhythm with relaxed but commanding percussion, and James adding to the tune's rich sound with some understated Hammond organ. "Walk In The Park"--named, according to James, because of its relatively straightforward nature, when compared to most of the album--has a feel-good, bluesy, New Orleans sensibility. This time, Brown combines melody with a funky groove, while Hooper keeps time with militaristic flair.
The central composition is "Soul Story," a 20-minute suite in four parts. "Soul Story (intro)" is a solo piano piece, James' strong left hand rhythm giving the tune toughness, while never obscuring the beauty of the melody. Hooper then kicks "Soul Story (part 1)" up a gear with some emphatic percussion, while James adds a gospel feel on Hammond. The up-tempo, lyrical, "Soul Story (part 3)" brings the suite to a positive conclusion.
"Soul Story" is a beautiful album, a gem that shines bright even among the many talented piano trios in contemporary British jazz. James' compositions are strongly melodic, imaginative and evocative, and The Peter James Trio a band with high musical ambitions--and the talent to achieve them.
Bruce Lindsay All About Jazz, October 2011 (review link)
A great leap forward from the piano trio's debut, this is an absorbing collection.
The ever-rising number of piano trios, and the sheer quantity of albums released by them, make it increasingly difficult for anyone to stand out in this overcrowded field. Fortunately, the line-up of piano, bass and drums can accommodate a diversity of styles and approaches, giving fans of the genre plenty of choice. The process is almost Darwinian: to rise above the crowd, a trio has to evolve its own distinctive voice - survival of the fittest. All of which leads nicely to the Peter James Trio.
The group consists of James on piano, Jeremy Brown on double bass and Thomas Hooper on drums, all graduates of the Royal Academy of Music. Soul Story is their second album, following Visions and Vistas from 2009. While not a runaway hit, that debut received much praise and showed the trio to be a tight unit with many individual and collective strengths. In the years between the two albums, the group has evolved, building on those strengths and developing new ones, making Soul Story a quantum leap forward from its predecessor.
Fittingly, James is centre-stage throughout; his inventive, melodic playing flows, radiating such assurance and passion that it commands attention. For Soul Story he has occasionally added Hammond organ to complement his piano, broadening and deepening the trio's soundscape. James' playing is so rhythmic and propulsive that Brown and Hooper are not required to underpin the rhythm, which frees them to frame and augment the keyboards in other ways, leading to a trio of equal players whose empathy is all too obvious.
All 11 tracks are James compositions. Drawing on various influences, they combine strong melodies with a sense of freedom that allows for easy transitions between themes and solos without any clunky gear changes. At the heart of Soul Story is the title piece, a beautifully crafted four-part composition of great variety which exemplifies the qualities of James the composer and of the trio. Lasting close to 20 minutes, it is totally absorbing, centred on a series of prolonged piano solos, none of which contains a wasted note or an ounce of flab.
John Eyles, BBC Music, 19th September 2011 (review link)
The piano trio is currently one of the staples in what might be called marketed jazz, but that doesn't mean that every example of the lineup lacks musical substance. British pianist Peter James' trio is a case in point, because it's clear that its stylistic range is wide, even while retaining its own identity.
Take the not misleadingly titled "Headlong," which finds the pianist damping the keys to vital rhythmic effect before bassist Jeremy Brown turns in a solo that, with shades of Arild Andersen, might be called reflective vitality.
"If the Hills Told Their Secrets" is, at first, mostly reflective, but the lyrical strain has such substance that the bland is happily kept at bay. Proceedings are colored by little touches of organ which, for all their modesty, have the effect of considerably enhancing the palette, a point which sums up what this trio is all about. In striking the somewhat precarious balance between reflection and rhythmic vitality so firmly, the trio marks out its own territory.
"Walk In The Park" works a down-home seam, albeit leavened by a measure of urbanity. Drummer Thomas Hooper lays a backbeat down, but James is a player sophisticated enough to avoid the obvious route. In journeying down the road less travelled, he offers insight into his ability to make a persuasive musical case without applying too much grease-although he implies, with his left hand in particular, that he could do so if he felt so inclined.
This is a trio that's more than the sum of its influences, although such is its range of expression that its clear the members are no musical purists. In bringing evidence of the music they actually listen to and appreciate into their work, they've put together a program as reflective of where jazz is right now as anything out there.
Nic Jones, All About Jazz, September 2011 (review link)
"Highly, highly recommended" Jamie Cullum, Radio 2
(Full radio transcript:)
On to some new music now... We're going to play some music from a band called the Peter James Trio. This is a trio that is certainly new to me...really, very fascinated by this group because I really enjoyed their new album. It's called Soul Story. Peter James is the piano player and composer, Tom Hooper is on the drums and Jeremy Brown on the double-bass. And there are a series of these new piano trios that really have developed a great band sound. It's not just about the lead instrument, they really sound like a band that have been playing together for a long time. They met at the Royal Academy of Music and they've been playing together ever since and you can really hear that on the album which is one of the great things about it. Another thing that is great about it is the strength of the compositions. They are very, very listenable and immediately appealing but no less complex and exciting for that so I think you'll really, really like this. Soul Story is the name of the album, the band's called the Peter James Trio and this is one of my favourite tracks from it - it's called ‘Headlong'...
Isn't that great, that's ‘Headlong' from the Peter James Trio. Peter James the piano player and composer, Tom Hooper on the drums and that beautiful big, round double-bass sound from Jeremy Brown. The album is called Soul Story and it's out now and it certainly comes highly, highly recommended from me.
Jamie Cullum Show, BBC Radio 2, 7th June 2011
Evocative jazz pianist shines again
Gifted pianist James forges a tight and ultra-creative outfit with double bassist Jeremy Brown and percussionist Thomas Hooper. The trio's latest release moves smoothly from the intriguing explorations of Ocean's Lament, through the melodic and effective sugar rush that is Headlong, to the four-section Soul Story. One cool, contemplative instrumental flows beautifully into another and carries the listener through green countryside, over mountains and along crystal clear waters so effortlessly, that the album ends too soon. This is a special recording destined for many plaudits and repeated airings.
The Musician, Summer 2011
Like the trio's previous Mulberry Tree album, Visions and Vistas (2008), Soul Story combines powerfully assured, often downright rollicking playing with a rare sensitivity born from their long mutual acquaintance (they have been playing together since their days at the Royal Academy of Music).
'Passionate, lyrical and always engaging' is how the 606's Steve Rubie puts it, and this album's title suite might have been specially composed by leader/pianist Peter James to prove him right: as James himself points out, his 'music represents a spiritual journey' from earthliness to 'a life-affirming transformation', and the gospelly ring and controlled exuberance that characterise the trio's more up-tempo playing, and the tenderness and grace of the album's quieter moments ('Ocean's Lament' an 'environmental cry against humanity's pollution', 'Warmth of the Sun' a memorable closer) provide pleasing contrast and variety in a carefully arranged programme, all written by James.
Bassist Jeremy Brown is exemplary in both accompanying and soloing roles, and the brisk, subtle contributions of drummer Thomas Hooper (aptly described by him as 'framing' James's pieces) drive the whole with vigour and elegance. James's compositions draw on everything from classical to latin music, freeish to more groove-based jazz, exploring what he calls 'the tensions between form and freedom', and Soul Story is an immediately attractive but consistently rewarding album, and a great appetiser for the band's rousing live performances.
Chris Parker, London Jazz, June 2011
"Beautiful music from the mind of pianist Peter James"
BBC Radio 3, Jazz Line Up. Julian Joseph plays music from Kairos Ensemble's Passion Suite. March 2010
Sensing that less can often mean more, the Peter James Trio make astute use of space and light on this debut outing. Peter James' graceful piano playing is beautifully supported by double bassist Jeremy Brown and Tom Hooper on drums across a programme of crisp original compositions and a sumptuous cover of the old standard, Stella By Starlight.
Alongside the trio's lithe and agile interplay, James' writing is a substantial part of the draw. Several tunes have a persuasive quality to them, rich in colour and generously endowed with intriguing harmonies and some surprising turns.
My Heart Longs for a Far Away Country crosses through several borders, cutting some seriously dashing interplay between the principle instruments along the way, before coming unexpectedly to rest with James alone in a wistful contemplation. It sounds as though the pianist is wondering how he came to end up in such a glittering, spectral place.
Poise and elegance tends to come with this combination of instruments. The Peter James Trio can add passion and push to that list. Exploring some of the same colours as the Marcin Wasilewski Trio in places, they may not have the prestige of a big name label like ECM behind them but this music is every bit as worthy.
Sid Smith, Postcards From The Yellow Room August 2009
A chance encounter at the 606 Club secured Peter James - who, although in his mid-thirties, appears to have come out of nowhere with this debut album - a glowing endorsement from Julian Joseph. Several others have stepped in to add their plaudits since, and listening to this charmingly crafted and soulful disc, you can hear why. Recorded with a couple of fellow Royal Academy grads, Thomas Hooper on drums and the well-established Jeremy Brown on double bass, Visions and Vistas shows off James's effervescent, Jarrettish touch. In many ways this in a fairly old-fashioned acoustic piano trio album - no electronics, and no Black Sabbath or Radiohead covers, the only non-original being a groovy assault on Victor Young's standard-of-standards ‘Stella by Starlight'. The tunes are well structured with a strong melodic sense: funky, Latin influences infuse the likes of ‘After Siesta', opening piano solo ‘Del Corazon' has both classical and Spanish inflections, while ‘My heart Longs for a Far Away Country' showcases some spirited and inventive trio interplay, and ‘Thanksgiving' finishes things off in (to quote James's own words) eclectically "township-hoedown-rollicking" style. ***
Robert Shore, Jazzwise Magazine September 2009
The Peter James Trio (pianist James, bassist Jeremy Brown, drummer Tom Hooper) began with a piece from their impressive debut album, Visions and Vistas (see CD Reviews), 'After Siesta', a brisk original subtly imbued with latin influences à la Chick Corea, and subsequently played that recording's title tune and a teasingly funky/groove-based version of Victor Young's evergreen 'Stella by Starlight', but for the most part, they aired robust new material. A particular highlight was a three-part suite, 'Soul Story', which not only played to the trio's individual strengths (Hooper's assertive but unshowy drumming, Brown's lithe eloquence, James's fluent power) but also showcased James's considerable compositional skills, which allow him to produce pieces whose irresistible, often almost Tyner-esque momentum is somehow never allowed to compromise either their fleetness or their rhythmic complexity. An intriguingly reworked 'My Funny Valentine' justifiably roused a full house to demand an encore; all in all, a fascinatingly varied, thoroughly enjoyable evening's music.
Chris Parker, Vortex Gig Reviews August 2009
"Fabulous playing by a great new band"
BBC Radio Ulster, Linley Hamilton's After Midnight 19th April 2009
I know little about pianist James; he's a new name to me although he turns out to have been around for ages. The website tells me that James is in his mid-30s and moved from Scarborough to study at the Royal Academy from which he emerged with a first class degree. So far, so academic. More to the point, he also began to hone the kind of pianistic skills which make this album such a delight. He names Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett as influences and it's easy to detect that latter's luminous touch on the lovely 'Del Corazon'. Some of James's pieces bring in Latin touches, others are funkier but the binding factor is his educated touch and canny harmonic sense. He's also got the gift of melody, as the Goons were wont to say, and can turn a pretty phrase or two, as on the catchy 'Embrace' or on his version of 'Stella by Starlight', the only standard on the recording. There's evidence throughout of a thoughtful approach, well made, intelligent structures inviting clever responses, the occasional hint of a classical upbringing only aiding and abetting the overall achievement. Bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Thomas Hooper are up for it all, discreet or assertive as required, the whole adding up to an auspicious first dip of the toe in the heady waters of the jazz mainstream.
Peter Vacher, Jazz UK magazine April/May 2009
"Excellent new British jazz trio"
Jazzfm, Mike Chadwick's Cutting Edge 15th March 2009
'A strong identity', 'optimism and musicality' and 'well-crafted and thoughtful compositions' are three complimentary (and entirely justified) comments from Julian Joseph on the press release accompanying this album, which contains nine originals and a standard ('Stella by Starlight') by Royal Academy alumni Peter James (piano), Jeremy Brown (bass) and Thomas Hooper (drums). It begins with a solo piano piece, 'Del Corazón', which immediately showcases James's strengths: in addition to a deftness and delicacy of touch, he is able to infuse his playing with a much rarer and less tangible quality: genuine sentiment, or - aptly in view of the piece's title - heart. Joined by his bandmates on later cuts, he manages to maintain this emotional intensity on a series of memorably melodic, affecting originals, ranging from the relatively complex title-piece to more straightforward musical reactions to melancholic wanderlust ('My Heart Longs for a Far Away Country'), the self-explanatory 'Mistral' and the latin-inflected, lightly funky 'After Siesta'. Ringing the changes intelligently between styles and moods (James himself accurately describes 'Thanksgiving' as possessing a 'township-hoedown-rollicking vibe', and 'Stella by Starlight' is pleasingly rambunctious), this is a compelling, musicianly album from an elegant but sparky trio, which promises much as a live act.
Chris Parker, Vortex CD reviews February 2009
"Peter James is a pianist who emerged with an amazing crop of musicians attending the Royal Academy of Music in the 90's. It included guys like Christian Garrick and Jeremy Brown who have been developing in the public gaze over the last 15 years or so. Peter however, has been developing in private but develop he has!
When we first met he struck me as a musician with a strong identity and inner calling and a decade and a half later that identity and calling has increased.
These attributes plus the optimism and musicality I first heard are enhanced now with a more assured technique, conception and well-crafted and thoughtful compositions.
Two friends from his academy days join him on drums and bass; Tom Hooper and the now well established Jeremy Brown, for a Trio recording full of pieces that combine to take you on a beautiful musical journey. As an improviser James is lucid and imaginative and truly communicates. Visions and Vistas from the Peter James Trio is long overdue from a talent with a lot to say and the vocabulary to say it soulfully!"
Julian Joseph, pianist/composer/broadcaster February 2009