Everyone’s favorite artist eventually takes an unexpected left turn. The question is whether you’re willing to go along for the ride. There is this unusual notion among some artists that fans who will not follow their favorite artist down his or her new detour are more interested in boxing “their” artist in and keeping that artist stale than letting them “grow” in their creativity. But, an artist/fan relationship is just like any other relationship: you first fall in love with specific aspects of a person, but the trick is staying in love as you and that person changes. Sometimes it works and you can follow. Other times, you’ll fall out of love with the newly changed person before you and hope they’ll come back to whom they were when you first fell in love. Sometimes they do.
Sometimes someone else may suddenly see them for the first time and fall in love in your place, giving their changed selves the affirmation they need to continue down the path of further exploration and evolution. The Blue Note release of While You Were Sleeping will be such a moment for jazz and soul singer/songwriter José James and those who love(d) him.
A Jon Lucien, Terry Callier, and Arthur Prysock triple combo all rolled up in one for the new generation, Jose James exudes laidback jazz cool. James’ cinematic iconography in image and album covers exploits this traditionalist vision that is also hip enough to be hip-hop while also embodying both jazz and soul. James has often played around with our cravings for the familiar, releasing a straight-ahead jazz piano duet album with Jef Neve in 2010 (For All We Know), collaborating with Chico Hamilton in 2009 (Twelve Tones of Love), and headlining a Billy Strayhorn tribute at Lincoln Center in one breath, while quietly pushing the envelope in other ways, like his fruitful alternative collaborations with Moodyman, Flying Lotus, Taylor McFerrin, and Pino Palladino. Throughout his career, James has been as much a part of the jazz festival circuit as he has been the ambient and electrosoul movements’ hipster darling. His last album, No Beginning, No End, even found him more deliberately dabbling in early neo-soul, acoustic pop, and light R&B funk. These forays have garnered him much deserved respect on both sides of the aisle.
Some of James’ prior excursions worked better than others, but they all showcased his signature ability to play with tone, space, timing, and sultriness. There was also often a naughty wit as with “Lay You Down,” a biting edge as found on “Code” or “Trouble,” an emotive, vulnerable resonance as with “Bird of Space” or “Tomorrow,” and an ability to be powerfully musical with minimalism as with “Come To My Door” and the standard classic “Tenderly.” With few exceptions, all of that which made José James uniquely special on that material appears to be largely missing on While You Were Sleeping, rendering the precarious line between spare and casual versus the simply boring glaringly prominent on a Jose James work for the first time.
From the ponderous “Bodhisattva” to the elegiac “Dragon (feat. Becca Stevens)” snoozes hit hard, fast and far too often with James’ fifth studio album, one devoted to alternative rock, classic rock, and edgier pop, but not one of an especially entertaining or commercial nature. While James has dropped such names as Nirvana, James Blake, Frank Ocean, Radiohead, Madlib, even Jimi Hendrix as influences for this album, those artists’ material found a place for compelling melody, vocals, and arrangements, whereas James only intermittently finds his way on that score here. Band members Kris Bowers on keys, bassist Solomon Dorsey, drummer Richard Spaven, and guitarist Brad Allen Williams are fine musicians, but they’re no Band of Gypsys, sometimes leaving this affair a competently performed, but bloodless homage. But the band can’t take the blame, especially on a cut like “Angel,” where James proves the weakest link, and not for the first time here.
Even when the band is going balls out on more aggressively rock fare like “Salaam” and “Without U,” James’s straight rock vocal approach without the range or grit to tackle these tunes in this manner does nothing for them. On a grunge meets pop rock driver like “Every Little Thing,” one of the most infectious cuts, you long for a stranger and more powerful voice like an Adam Lambert to take the reins and send James to the audience. Rarely has there been a more mixed match affair than the head-banger “Anywhere U Go,” proving not all hybrid blends of musical approaches work; but kudos to the electric guitarist, he tried to save the day.
There are exceptions, where James and co-producer Brian Bender manage to find a room for this new vision and classic James too. The mythically melodic “4 Noble Truths” reads like a western fantasy in the way that Sting did for his John Dowland album of folkloric Renaissance songs, if with more decidedly late ‘60s rock leanings. “4 Noble Truths” takes advantage of what makes James’ voice special and the band leans back just enough to wrap the poetic lyrics in warmth, while Spaven’s drunken drums gives the cut a relaxed rhythmic drive. Someone again remembered how James can master space and stripped bare emotionalism when an ambient atmosphere is lain for him to play in, and so one is grateful for “xx” for its reprieve, and only slightly less so for the near impactful, but still lovely dream of a title track. Trumpeter Takuya Kuroda with Bowers and Allen prove a formidable trio on the millionth contemporary cover of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful,” but here the sumptuous soulfulness of James’ instrument and the knowing in his delivery make it worth every bit of the trouble. It is simply the best rendering of the classic since Green and welcome given how much what surrounds it is not beautiful or even interesting.
Yes, While You Were Sleeping is what happens when your long time lover takes up martial arts or changes religions on you. He’s familiar, yet not, as if seen in a far away distance or lensed in heavy fog. The question is whether this is your new reality with him or will you (or he) wake up and realize it was all just a temporary trip, like a bad dream from which you’re eager to awake. Mildly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson