When he emerged from nowhere in 2007 with a stunning debut album, ‘Dreamer,’ for Gilles Peterson’s UK-based Brownswood label, Minneapolis- born José James was hailed as one of the most exciting new jazz singers to emerge for many a year. With his warm, distinctive delivery – which melded the lush, resonant tone of Johnny Hartman with the carefree athleticism of Jon Hendricks – James seemed a purist’s dream by virtue of the fact that he seemed solely focused on maintaining and continuing the jazz tradition.
Cameo roles on albums by jazz legends Junior Mance (2008’s ‘Live At Café Loup’), and Chico Hamilton (2009’s ‘Twelve Tones Of Love’) enhanced his jazz credentials but to the surprise of many, the singer’s next solo opus – 2009’s ‘Black Magic‘ – witnessed him taking a radically different direction, his mellow voice floating on a bed of slinky neo-R&B and jazz-tinged hip-hop beats. James then left Brownswood and recorded a one-off collaboration for Impulse!, ‘For All We Know,’ a straight-ahead set of voice-piano duets with Belgian keyboardist, Jef Neve, in 2010. After that he signed to Blue Note in 2012 and recorded ‘No Beginning No End,’ another diverse collection that witnessed the singer embracing different styles and moving away from the narrow confines of straight ahead jazz.
Now 36, the chameleonic and very personable US singer is back with his fourth solo album – and second for Blue Note – ‘While You Were Sleeping.’ Largely a guitar-led set that features several tracks of indie rock-style riffing and power chords, the 12-song collection is far removed from the intimate old school jazz style that he out started with. But while the album might bypass the most blinkered of jazz critics, James hasn’t abandoned the gorgeous soulfulness that has been a consistent feature of all his recordings. The singer, who’s due to play at London’s Scala venue on July 7th, recently talked at length to SJF’s Charles Waring about his new album, his work with Italian jazz-funk maestro Nicola Conte as well as the musicians that have helped to shape his own unique sound and style…
Your new album ‘While You Were Sleeping’ is very different from what you’ve one before. What’s the story behind it?
It started when I was on the road and I was listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane – not any of the stuff that is commercially available but like the stuff that she recorded when she was in an ashram; her cassette-only album from 1982 (‘Turiya Sings’). What struck me was that was it was so heavy on synths. There’s like a real resurgence of synth-based music now and I was listening to her and I was listening to (English electro auteur) James Blake at the same time and was thinking like, wow, this is basically the same thing. To me there’s so much church music in what James Blake does. So that got me on the connection between the jazz mind and the electronic, indie rock world. So that was the genesis of it.
Some of the tracks, such as the opener ‘Angel,’ have a pronounced guitar-led rock feel to them. What was the thinking behind that?
All the songs are written on guitar so it feels like a natural trend towards folk or rock or blues or singer-songwriter music. It just sort of started heading in that direction and my bassist recommended Brad Williams, a guitar player. We had some sessions with him and it felt really good. Actually there’s a bonus track (on the album), ‘Who Loves The Sun,’ by the Velvet Underground and that was an exercise for me to get the band headed in being more comfortable playing rock. I didn’t want to make a rock album but I wanted the energy and attitude of rock.
What’s the response been to the new album?
Well, everybody outside of the UK loves it. Everyone in the UK who is a jazz person hates it, uniformly (laughs). Though actually jazz FM has embraced it, they like the Al Green track (‘Simply Beautiful’) but there is really a lot of resistance to it – but only in the UK.
Many jazz critics here are purists who are resistant to change.
Yeah, mouldy figs, right? (Laughs).
‘While You Were Sleeping’ is radically different from the album that you first started out with, ‘Dreamer,’ in 2007. Are you a musician who’s never content to sit still stylistically and enjoy taking risks?
I think so. Honestly, spending so much time in London and working with Gilles Peterson really shaped this whole trajectory. Before I met Gilles I was very much content to be a straight up and down jazz singer and was still wearing suits. I was more like Gregory Porter in a way but even more classical than him. And I wasn’t writing my own songs. ‘The Dreamer’ was the first song that I ever wrote, which is crazy. Gilles introduced me to so many new artists and new communities and working with DJs and working with producers and I thought, wow, okay, this is a whole new world for me and I really haven’t looked back. I’m really thankful for the time I had working with Gilles: he opened me up to new possibilities.
Now you’re on your second album for Blue Note Records. What does it feel like to be associated with a legendary record company that has so much jazz history associated with it?
It’s incredible and a huge honour and I recently did a celebration concert in Amsterdam at the Concertgebouw and we performed with (legendary jazz saxophonist/composer) Benny Golson, which was amazing. He told me all these amazing stories, for example like how the track ‘Moanin” (which Golson wrote while with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers) was written. And then we went from that to play some of my stuff, like ‘Trouble’ (from José’s 2012 CD, ‘No Beginning No End’). It was just really cool and seamless, and he really loved it. What I find is that the older the jazz musician the more open-minded they are. It’s really interesting. He was sitting there and was super into it and this guy’s 85.