In certain quarters, Minneapolis-born, London-based José James has been accused of being “boring” as a vocalist. Armed with a weighty baritone whose flow flirts with the bridges between jazz, hip hop and soul, James excels in songs with plenty of space and whose arrangements allow him breathing room to spare. How well he holds your interest while playing with all that space intelligently fiddling with tone, mood, phrasing and expressive atmospherics depends on your ear and the material. He’s not one for big notes and melisma histrionics, preferring to see how well his instrument can conjure intimacy and warmth to seduce the ear. The material being key to whether James rises as he did with his flawless cult classic, Blackmagic, or falls as he arguably did with his alternative rock and fusion experimentation, While You Were Sleeping.
In certain quarters, Minneapolis-born, London-based José James has been accused of being “boring” as a vocalist. Armed with a weighty baritone whose flow flirts with the bridges between jazz, hip hop and soul, James excels in songs with plenty of space and whose arrangements allow him breathing room to spare. How well he holds your interest while playing with all that space intelligently fiddling with tone, mood, phrasing and expressive atmospherics depends on your ear and the material. He’s not one for big notes and melisma histrionics, preferring to see how well his instrument can conjure intimacy and warmth to seduce the ear. The material being key to whether James rises as he did with his flawless cult classic, Blackmagic, or falls as he arguably did with his alternative rock and fusion experimentation, While You Were Sleeping. It helps that his follow-up to that ill-fated release is one of nothing but winning songs any student of standards or Tin Pan Alley-era Broadway would know. Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday is easily the best straight-ahead jazz album of James’s young career.
While the more hybrid Blackmagic gets all the glory, Yesterday I Had The Blues… is not James’ first foray into purist jazz. Critically acclaimed and placing James on the international scene, 2008’s The Dreamer eschewed standards for original soulful material where there was no question that much of it qualified as modern jazz for jazz lovers. The subsequent For All We Know, a standards cover album with pianist Jef Neve on Impulse! Records, had moments of beauty and flourish, but as a piano ballad project, it too often lent itself to that pesky charge of sleepiness delivered by some aficionados who expected more. Better was James’s guest work on Finnish jazz powerhouse, Timo Lassy, on his Round Two project, which boasted such hard bop cuts like “Ya Dig” and “The More I Look At You.” Two new versions of songs cut on For All We Know find a home on Yesterday I Had The Blues… offering a chance to compare James’ growth as a vocalist on this “Body and Soul” and a much abridged “Tenderly” compared to the nearly eight-minute version he cut with Neve in 2010.
And grow James has in the seven years since The Dreamer, when he was occasionally more hip hop soulster that purist jazz crooner. In the ensuing years, he has developed a better ear for melody, refrained from being as overly reliant on his mahogany tone, and learned more about his instrument’s hidden spaces, mining them to curl a phrase here, holding a trembling moan there, and making a note cavernous in between, usually for the better, as with his near signature take on the Johnny Green, Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton classic, “Body and Soul.” James’s rendition of “Body and Soul” has so much intelligent movement and considered dexterity that it perhaps, more than any song on this nine-song set, showcases how much better a technician James has become. On Yesterday I Had The Blues…, James also shows us he’s found his blues on a cut like the Arthur Herzog and Billie Holiday penned “God Bless The Child” and on another Holiday original, “Fine and Mellow.” Rather than try to aim for Holiday’s haunting intonations and stripped bare vulnerability, James goes for the melancholic sophisticate who tries to hide his woundedness. The withholding works on a finely produced slow drag like “God Bless The Child” (whose drummer deserves an award), but less so on something like “Fine and Mellow,” where he’s too smooth and contained when the lyric calls for an expression more world weary and yet still slyly humored, much like Holiday herself.
As with key moments on 2012’s No Beginning No End, James again occasionally struggles with releasing his cool machismo and seducer ways - he can’t seem to help wanting to woo the listener with his silken tone and phrasing, even when its lothario cuteness gets in the way. In doing so, James undercuts the first half of “Lover Man” before he eventually yields midway through to the inherent yearning of the lyric. However, on those songs when he surrenders right from the start, something truly exquisite happens, as on his transcendently spiritual take on “Strange Fruit.” Against a barebones dirge of moans and spare claps, James lays himself on the altar of the soul-stirring material and sacred wailing floor that producer and Blue Note president Don Was carefully crafts. Their take on the often covered and sadly still timely “Strange Fruit” uniquely honors the Jewish Abel Meeropol’s anti-lynching poem made famous by Holiday by capturing the intensity and the horror of that harrowing experience. Again, turning himself over to the material, James is almost a different singer on “Good Morning Heartache,” as his interpretation is devoid of his usual musical winks and playboy collar pops. His “Good Morning Heartache” is method acting done straight, without flourish making it easy to picture and hurt for the man dreading the dawn of yet another new day spent alone.
There are times when the romantic James as a man in love is exactly what the song requires and everything comes in alignment. José James’ second time at bat on recording “Tenderly” is flawless. While Holiday’s more flirtatious version on 1956’s Solitude endears in its lightness, James works the song as almost one would a hushed lullaby to a sleeping child. It wraps a listener in ermine and gently rocks you with love. On another glove-fit, he’s featherweight with bright adoration on “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” a cut representing the project’s sole up-tempo track. It doesn’t find James’ smile through the microphone until nearly halfway into the cut’s pocket perfect musical swing, and when it does he finds a center spot to sing from, taking his time rather than fully riding the tempo of the swing. It’s a fitting choice for a man who has found his own more solid footing as a skilled jazz vocalist worthy of more purist respect in a world that needs to encourage more of the younger talent James represents.
As for boring, I think the top notch musicianship of the A-list band, Was’s peerless production, and James’ own undeniable growth as an interpreter on Yesterday I Had The Blues… largely does the job of quieting some of the naysayers, perhaps once and for all. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson