A new voice of note has emerged on the music scene in the guise of Mr. Jose James. Hailing from Minneapolis and now based in Brooklyn, this talented young singer/composer/producer has released a brilliantly realized debut c.d. -- The Dreamer -- which firmly places him (in my mind) as perhaps the best male jazz vocalist of his generation. The Dreamer is released out of the U.K. on Giles Peterson's Brownswood Recordings label.
As an influential internationally-renowned personality, Peterson has a knack for identifying and spotlighting forward looking musical talent. With a Peterson association quality is presumed from the onset. The Peterson imprimatur assured that James' introduction is given a real opportunity for impact. The Dreamer does not disappoint. It signals a needed shift; a return to quality, depth and a honoring of the vast tradition of black music. The build up for the release of The Dreamer has been in the making for over year, starting with the release of the title track on 2006's Brownswood Bubblers compilation. "The Dreamer" is a languid tune which features a floating trumpet line anchored by James' slow, meditative crooning. The combination instantly drew me in and held me in rapt attention. James' mature baritone was comfortably familiar and timeless.
Jose James has an engaging vocal quality that is reminiscent of artists such as Andy Bey, Leon Thomas, Jon Lucien, and Gil Scott Heron. He is their logical heir but also he has a unique stamp to his voice. Listening to the ten tracks on the Dreamer, the range of influences that pervade throughout the record amaze. The tracks have an ease and a innate hipness to them -- James is cool and his players swings effortlessly, mingling their influences into a very modern sensibility. At once sophisticated and homey, The Dreamer is a record that could be the soundtrack to accompany family gatherings, card games, cocktails parties, or the midnight hour. The songs speak plainly and directly offering music to move, soothe and fuel you. Jose James has produced a work that stands so outside (perhaps ahead?) of the mainstream of popular music that it becomes a cipher of the times. Ostensibly the songs are about love hoped for, lost, and remembered but they also speak to the spiritual need of the day.
The ten tracks on the Dreamer range from six original compositions to four well selected forgotten and/or overlooked standards. For example, he revises Rahsaan Roland Kirk's little known but wonderful composition "Spirit Up Above" to rousing soulful effect. Elsewhere Bill Lee's "Nola'," the theme song from Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have it, is given an update. Under James' direction, the waltz time of Bill Lee's production is transformed and updated with a subtle shuffling hip hop beat. It sounds so right for the times and it haunts long after it has played. James also covers Art Blakey's "Moanin'" -- adding swinging lyrics to the track. He and his trio play it straight and capture the composition's vibrant spiritual essence. Again, the melody lingers on in the mind long afterwards. The last cover track is culled from the Freestyle Fellowship, an underground hip hop collective from Los Angeles which released a brilliant album in the mid 90's and then faded into obscurity. James chose their "Park-Bench People" and it's a masterwork. Beautifully rendered, it merges a spoken word approach with a wistful world weary lyricism. The song ambles along a tasteful groove that borrows from Freddie Hubbards "Red Clay". By resuscitating this track, Jose James elevates it to a new standard for the hip hop era.
Adding to the overall perfection of the Dreamer are the original compositions; a number of which could easily become 21st Century standards. "Winterwind" is a lovely song about lost love and loneliness built on a winding vamp and a simple melody that really accentuates the emotion of the track. "blackeyedsusan," another outstanding composition, serves as a come-on to a lover who James is intent on getting to fall in love with him. It is an effusive song, bubbling with joy and innocence. "Red" is a modal dance track built that pays homage to the Coltrane quartet. In fact John Coltrane serves as a spiritual mentor to Jose James and his compositional influence can be found throughout the album.
Overall there is nary a misstep on The Dreamer and contained within its grooves is a sense of prescience - that Mr. James is the harbinger of changing times -- the Sankofa who looks backwards while moving forwards . That aside, this is ultimately a record of substance and integrity. It moves the heart, the mind, the soul and is the strongest debut that I have come across in a long while. What makes this project so special is the seeming cohesion and focus that has been brought to it. The Dreamer would not be as solid if Jose was not supported by such a strong team of players on the album. Relatively young and unknown (Noiri Ochiai (piano), Alexi David (bass) and Steve Lyman (drums), along with a number of featured players), all the musicians play with a confidence and ease that really allow Jose to be heard to the best effect. The Dreamer makes me eager to witness the development of this vital talent. For those of you in the New York City area, Jose James is currently in the midst of a series of monthly gigs in the East Village at Club NuBlu. The shows are scheduled for every third Thursday of the month. I believe there are one or two more shows left in the series and we have a rare opportunity to witness a nascent talent develop in a very intimate setting. You are likely to be impressed.
By Jujube Jones