Despite the mainstream public’s enduring and bewildering resistance to knowing his name, jazz darling Jose James consistently demonstrates why they are the ones missing out. A cognac smooth approach to lyric and a hip-hop-meets-bebop swing to his scat haven’t done it. Witty, seductive, innovative, yet still accessible modern jazz compositions have not done it. Iconographic imagery on cover after cover hasn’t done it. A classically handsome mug framed by fitted ball caps and natural Dalmatian hair hasn’t done it. Smart branding and social media campaigns with voyeuristic behind-the-scenes concert and studio clips haven’t done it. Even Jose James’ easy as a Sunday morning dealings with the media and humble, yet generous disposition with fans hasn’t done it. A much-hyped, but ultimately underwhelming stint with Verve Records failed to push him to the next level outside of Japan.
Seemingly nothing textbook has moved Jose James from the respectable position of critics’ inked beloved and festival circuit working musician to the global stardom his gifts and hustle have earned. Hopefully, with this EP prelude to his fifth full-length studio album, No Beginning, No End, the baritone will take a great leap forward to emerge from niche shadows to more mainstream recognition. Funkier and more R&B than jazz, It’s All Over Your Body further expands James’s repertoire in interesting, if not always new directions.
That Jose James isn’t bigger despite completing some artistically big works isn’t all that unusual for his primary genre. It’s hard out here for the male jazz singer, always has been for anyone not named Sinatra, Bennett, Eckstine, Cole or Scott. Only Kevin Mahogany, Gregory Porter and, to a lesser extent, newcomers Saunders Sermons and Chris Turner, have seemed to make any waves in the contemporary jazz scene (Jamie Cullum and Michael Bublé are pop singers, not jazz—sorry!). Increasingly the public loves its jazz sung by raspy chanteuses of the Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, and Gretchen Parlato ilk. With his hip imaging and personality engorged musicianship, by his lauded sophomore Dreamer and junior Blackmagic projects, James seemed well poised to breakthrough, especially with international cheerleaders like Gilles Peterson backing him and international DJs and musicians from Moodymann to Taylor McFerrin remixing him to club/lounge fanfare. Still, the sales didn’t match the acclaim.
Straddling the crisscrossed lines of hip hop, jazz, house and R&B, James may have been too hip and eclectic in his approach to jazz for some purists. A label deal with Verve with a straight-ahead jazz project—with just voice and piano no less—was supposed to throw the naysayers a bone and assuage the purists. But, the brilliantly sung For All We Know with collaborator Jef Neve was something of a snooze for fans who’d witnessed the street art James could make out of a standard like “Save Your Love for Me.” Even the twin hard bop guest spots on Round Two, Timo Lassy’s Norwegian jazz project, had more swag. So, the Verve relationship came to a mutually amicable end and Jose James returned to the drawing board, only this time it’s with the legendary Blue Note Records and four projects of fan accrual behind him. Fingers crossed.
Early samples of tracks from No Beginning, No End, Jose James’ forthcoming release, heard on DJ Spinna’s mixtape, The Eccentric Movements of Jose James (since pulled from the web), revealed an artist returning to the eclectic urban sounds that made fans fall in love with all things Jose James in the first place. Some of those mixtape cuts are present here on It’s All Over Your Body, jams the more ardent will already have or be familiar with from his 2011 AllSaints Basement Sessions. Newbies to James’s latest material will be struck by how much funk and neo-soul are present on what is genteelly marketed as jazz.
His bluesy funk single, “Trouble,” is recorded live with musicians so present you can feel their breath coming through your speakers. A punchy horn section livens up the moody neo-soul of the organ and bass guitar chords on the jam’s warning lament. Jose James is relaxed in the pocket of a song that has accordingly inspired several remixes, including a “love on the beat” take that is simply sublime (though, sadly, not present on this commercial EP).
The first of two versions of the title cut continues with a Philly soul vibe that would not have been entirely out of place on an early James Poyser production. On it, Jose James walks his lyrics through the brass and percussion heavy atmospherics of a song that conjures cigar smoke in darkened nightclubs. It’s intimate, but without the wink and a smile that accompanied such knowing cuts as “Lay You Down” off Blackmagic. DJ Spinna’s remix of “It’s All Over Your Body” brings some Brooklyn basslines and more abstract horns to the blaxploitation proceedings, giving the track a ‘70s Shaft pimp walk for the ‘90s hip hop hey days. The repetition of the track does begin to wear just shy of the four-minute mark when it becomes clear there will be no surprising transitions to end the burgeoning monotony of what began with excitement. An instrumental version begs some head-scratching since this is a Jose James EP rather than a Spinna project, but the addition works well enough for those wanting to study Spinna’s unique production alchemy absent James’s liquid tones.
The project closes with what is something of a surprise. An acoustic pop duet with Emily King presents a light and lilting gift in melody and restraint. Emily’s airbrush touch doesn’t quite pack the wallop that Jordana de Lovely’s did on Blackmagic’s “Love Conversation” but it does nicely balance James’ powerful instrument, here scaled back to allow the ballad all the room it needs to breathe. Demure and almost hesitant, together they create the EP’s most tender moment without a moment of artifice. Like the foreplay between King and James, It’s All Over Your Body is a teaser for a talent whose superstardom has been teasing those who’ve been rooting for him for years. Hopefully this is the beginning of a satisfying climax for us all. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson