Live Review/ Jose James, Sept. 18 & 19, @ the New Parish. All photos ©Eric K. Arnold 2014
When it comes to contemporary male vocalists, one has to consider Jose James as a superstar-in-the making. Trained in jazz phrasing, James’ music encompasses a wide stylistic range—everything from soulful R&B to hip-hop inflections to grungey indie-rock accents—which adds nuance and artistic depth to a guy who could easily be typecast as a pretty-boy pop chameleon.
James remains rooted in soul idioms, however. Like many of the great soul singers who have preceded him, he’s turned emotional vulnerability into a strength. His willingness to confess his weaknesses and limitations, as well as his desires, has gained him a sizeable female fan base over the years. His albums have the same effect as Marvin Gaye or Sade’s recordings: if you play them on a first date, you’re pretty much guaranteed a second. What James truly excels at is transferring his moodiness into a feeling of shared intimacy. Sure, his phrasing and jazz-friendly delivery helps, but if he didn’t have substance behind it, it wouldn’t be nearly as resonant.
Like many men (I’m sure), I was introduced to Jose James through a female friend. Now personally, I could care less about his appearance, but I will grant that his boyish yet mischievous face is eye candy for those who like those sort of things. Heartthrob status aside, I’ve found that his music holds up to extended listenings. Which is appreciated, in an era of all-looks, no-talent, male vocalists.
It’s been about six years since James first emerged. He appeared on German beatmeisters Jazzanova’s“Little Bird” around the same time he released his debut album, which featured a cover of Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People” – which has since become one of his signature songs. The song is notable for many reasons. First off, it’s a slept-on classic from hip-hop’s Golden Era. Second, it addresses social conditions (homelessness) without being preachy. Third, it always affords an opportunity for James to vibe out, vamp, and throw down some improvised live jazz-scatting,
James performed “Park Bench People” both nights during his recent two-evening residency at the New Parish. Each time it was different, as far as the particular vocal passages he chose to emphasize. Each time, it was transcendent, sending the audience over the edge and giving the band suitable time to improvise and stretch out the groove. For many other artists, such a feat would have been the highlight of the show.
Not so with James. He seemed determined to show his stylistic diversity, but also to show that his melodic multiplicity was grounded in emotional honesty. On Friday night, he tackled Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”—one of the lesser-known songs from Green’s seminal 1972 disc, I’m Still in Love With You—and turned it into an extended, show-stopping groove-a-thon, as the band highlighted the “duh-dun-dun-dah” riff which anchors the song.
James was simply okay Thursday, but Friday night, he was on fire. His comfort level between the first and second shows seemed to increase exponentially: On Thursday, he seemed a bit reserved; On Friday, he strongly connected with the crowd, a fired-up Oakland audience primed and ready to throw down. He could seemingly do no wrong onstage; each tune brought on warm fuzzies and audience appreciation levels which approached unbridled joy, as James traveled further into the zone. He succeeded in projecting an element of soul which resonated even through his more experimental material – which sounded far less flat than it did the previous night. (One reason for the difference may have been that James could hear himself better; early on in Friday’s show, he told the audience his monitor, which apparently had been troubling him the previous evening, had been fixed.)
A highlight of the Thursday show was “Come to My Door,” sung with Emily King, who appears on the album, No Beginning No End. On Friday, James performed his version solo, which lost little lustre, if at all.
Other James originals went over equally well. He dedicated “U R the 1” to the “highest person in the house” – an interesting choice, since just about everyone in the audience was probably a bit intoxicated. The song propelled itself along on a silky, sultry minimalist groove, laced with lyrics which were both poetic and romantic. The quiet intimacy of the album version became something altogether more dynamic in a live setting, yet retained its intimate feeling. It was like listening to a person’s innermost thoughts during a moment of blissful realization, a shared catharsis which connected everyone in the room through their heart chakras. New Age soul can be a bit difficult to pull off earnestly, yet James’ crooning sounded more sincere than contrived.
Now is the time for lovers to embrace
Now is the time when bodies burn
It’s only desire we’re longing for a taste
In darkness we wait for love’s return
“Bodhisattva” outpaced the album version with a more organic rendering of the tune, an emo-soul banger which alternates between mellow verses and an expressive chorus.
“Trouble” lived up to its title, as James milked the song for all it was worth, repeating the words trouble trouble trouble and struggle struggle struggle like a mantra.
James’ cover medley of classic soul artist Bill Withers isn’t a new thing – he’s been doing it for a while. Withers, as we know, wrote the book on straddling the line between blues, R&B, soul, funk and jazz. But James doesn’t cover Withers unless he’s really feeling it. And he was feeling it on Friday night. We got a very full version of “Grandma’s Hands,” wrapped around “Who Is He (and What Is He To You)” and a bit of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” For James, the medley offered another chance to loosen up even further, riffing on the line “if I get to heaven,” before diving back into “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Feeling sufficiently warmed up, it was then that he tackled the aforementioned “Park Bench People,” which also featured an extended intro section. He closed the night with “Do You Feel,” yet another love song, which he dedicated to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.
Do you feel what I feel?
Do you know what I know?
Do you see what I see?
Wanna go where I wanna go
When you know I’m feeling
Like a long time awaiting for someone
divine and maybe it’s you
Making real music isn’t easy in an age where hype often outpaces talent. But James has somehow managed to carve out an oeuvre which looks to tradition as a touchstone for moving the envelope forward. With his hybrid sound, he can’t be pigeonholed as a modern jazz artist, but bringing jazz phrasing and soulful feeling to a mash-up of genres makes him a modernist, as well as a fitting 21st century representative of the classic jazz label Blue Note, whom he records for. Along with labelmate Robert Glasper, James has succeeded in bringing the spirit of jazz to a younger audience. That’s a hopeful sign in a time when new albums by overhyped pop acts are foisted upon us through computerized content delivery systems, whether we want them or not. -EKA