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The dark and light sides of Jose James' music
words Sven Carlsson // images Press
Labeling Minneapolis-born vocalist Jose James as a jazz singer is so convenient that it verges on the unavoidable. Trained at The New School’s jazz program in New York and steeped in the traditions of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and not least John Coltrane, James’ raspy baritone granted his quartet-based 2008 debut The Dreamer international acclaim and show bookings at jazz festivals across the globe.
But to typecast Jose James’ subsequent work according to genre conventions would do both him and the legacy of jazz music a disservice. “I try not to think about what I do in genres, because they’re all just collaborations that make sense at the time,” James explains from his newfound home in London, UK. Now signed to Impulse Records, the imprint that married John Coltrane with engineer Rudy van Gelder in the early 1960’s, Jose James is eager to point out that genre orthodoxy never was his or his forebears’ concern.
“People like Miles Davis or John Coltrane just let everything develop and did not put one record higher or lower than the next,” he says. “They just wanted to continually develop their approach to making music.”
Having emulated “that 1958 jazz sound” on The Dreamer, with “everything played together and in one take,” Jose James’ second album Blackmagic, released last year, saw his recording process go global and his sound venture elsewhere.
Contrary to the NYC-produced The Dreamer, Blackmagic was conceived remotely while Jose was on tour: on planes, after shows and in hotel rooms, whenever and wherever his busy touring schedule allowed. Tokyo DJ and producer Mitsu sent material from Japan, electronic pioneer Flying Lotus contributed from Los Angeles and dubstep giant Benga played his part from the UK. He did work in-person with Taylor McFerrin when he supplied Jose with a track – mid-air on a Singapore-bound flight.
The finished product became a hybrid of influences. Warm and traditionally minimal jazz offerings such as ‘Save Your Love for Me’ shared space with the hip-hop and neo-soul nod ‘Lay You Down’ and the mystique of minor-chord songs like Flying Lotus-produced ‘Blackmagic’.
“Songs like ‘Blackmagic’ and ‘Warrior’ have a plaintive quality to them,” James says of the duality of the sound on his sophomore release. “They’re not really menacing but there is a certain darkness there. I think that suits my voice and personality in an interesting way,” he explains.
“Some people were surprised that I would work with Benga and Flying Lotus on those songs, but I think they’re great composers. They’re both in the avant-garde of rhythmic development, and the particular tone on those tracks comes from a minor kind of feel and a lo-fi sound.”
Currently testing the waters of new sound by working with electronic producer Amp Fiddler, bass guitarist Pino Paladino and Detroit producer Leon Ware, among others, Jose James intends to continue to explore new musical horizons on his new album. And we should not be surprised; just as John Coltrane drew on the work of Albert Ayler and Sun Ra to create new, avant-garde beginnings for jazz music in the late 1960’s, Jose James is incorporating styles at the forefront of today’s musical development to deliver a fresh and exciting sound to his listeners.
Proud to work with British composer Richard Spaven, who “treats all styles of music equally,” James has an innate affinity for jazz but also the confidence to take his music elsewhere. “Great jazz musicians like Robert Glasper or Esperanza Spalding can make any kind of music,” he explains. “Quincy Jones started out playing bebop, and look where he went from there.”
Yet James’ ecclecticism does not disguise his love for the earlier stages of development in jazz music. For All We Know, basically an impromptu recording with renowned Belgian pianist Jef Neve, was released in May this year. Based on one six-hour recording session from 2009, the album draws on jazz standards, with Neve’s piano and James’ vocal guiding each other through 50 minutes of improvisation.
In the works for James is also a Lincoln Center tribute to Billy Strayhorn, evidence that he is at once hyperproductive and in touch with his musical roots. Further proof is the fact that James continues to frequent jazz festivals around the globe, and this summer will be no different.
Whether playing to a jazz-oriented crowd or a club demanding encouraging rhythms, James and his band perform a tightly-nit set where improvisation is key.
“With Blackmagic there is more space for the rhythmic improvisation you’d find in hip-hop music, the kind of J Dilla or Flying Lotus stuff. Melodic imrpovisation is easier with material from The Dreamer,” Jose says, and we should expect to see a little of each this summer – enough to please orthodox connaisseurs, and probably sway them too.
Jose James’ website