There is one thing you can count on when the vocalist José James puts out a new album, it will be unlike anything he has done before. The thirty-nine year old singer has been confounding his audience and critics alike with his insistence on not settling on his past musical laurels. He is first and foremost an artist, who primarily wants to push himself and his art into new and sometimes uncomfortable territory. For him these forays into the unknown are stretching exercises, yoga for his creative spirit. The Minneapolis born singer has always felt singing was his calling and he takes his mission very seriously.
Ever since attending the New School of Contemporary Music in NYC in 2008, James has been on a search to expand his musical horizons. He was mentored by the pianist Junior Mance and the drummer/bandleader Chico Hamilton. He claims his jazz influences as John Coltrane and Billie Holiday, but his lineage also includes the music of Marvin Gaye and A Tribe Called Quest, and you can hear the cadence of Gil Scott-Heron and the silky smoothness of Johnny Hartman in his luxurious baritone.
My first exposure to James was at the Carmoor Jazz Festival back in 2010. At that time I was so impressed that I wrote "He is a young artist that needs to be watched." In 2015 I caught James “live” when he came to the Variety theater in Atlanta in support of his Yesterday I Had the Blues, a tribute to Billie Holiday. His stage presence was noticeably more polished and his performance was inspired.
His debut album Dreamer was self-produced and introduced in 2008 to critical acclaim, with James ushering in a new era of jazz vocals that incorporated elements of hip hop into the repertoire. He released Blackmagic, a neo-soul classic that pushed further onto new ground. With little concern about alienating his core audience, James daringly released a sparse duet album of jazz standards with the British pianist Jef Neve, For All We Know. The album received international recognition garnering the Edison Award and L' Accademie du Jazz Grand Prix for best Vocal Jazz Album of 2010.
In 2012 James was signed to the prestigious Blue Note record label where he released his single “Trouble” and the album No Beginning, No End in 2013 and While You Were Sleeping in 2014. In 2015, in honor of what would have been of Billie Holiday’s One Hundredth birthday, James released the impressive Yesterday I Had the Blues, where the singer skillfully interpreted songs of Lady Day in his own inimitable style. Critics hailed the album and it was named on many best of jazz for 2015 lists including my own.
James most recent album is titled Love in a Time of Madness and once again is a departure from the vocalist’s past outings, taking on a distinctive vibe that explores the soul, R and B, and funk of the late seventies, modernizing it with electronica techniques like trap beat.
NOJ: You are starting a tour that will kick off in Atlanta, this time at CenterStage, on March 16, 2017. This will be in support of your latest album Love in a Time of Madness. Let’s get started on how this album came about.
JJ: A lot of people will be surprised to know this, but the actual constructive beginning of this album and this process began with the Blue Note catalogue. I was going through a now defunct Spotify app that was amazing. It was all about Blue Note samples. It was this ingenious app that let you hear pretty much every Blue Note sample in the history of the label. It was incredible. I was going through it thinking about, what is some stuff I haven’t really checked out. I came across all of this great material from the seventies with the Mizzell Brothers producing, Hubert Laws, Donald Byrd and I realized that I knew those albums through hip-hop samples, but I really didn’t actually know the albums. So I spent a lot of time listening to the albums themselves. That actually pointed me in the direction of the kind of funk jams, live your fantasy and all that kind of stuff that you hear on Life in a Time of Madness.
NOJ: You have a tour in support of this album and you starting off that tour right here in Atlanta at Centerstage. Why start in Atlanta?
JJ: Atlanta for me is easily one of the top three places to play in the world. If I had to pick one city in the U.S. to play in the year it would be Atlanta, just on a pure enjoyment level. I find it has the kind of intellectual sophistication and musical appreciation, like New York or LA, but it has that realness of like a Detroit or Chicago. People just really love music. It also has this real spiritual and African American perspective that really puts it in a special place for me all on its own. I love it, I know I have to start strong in Atlanta.
NOJ: I myself am a transplant to Atlanta from the metro NY area and I was pleased to find a vibrant and strong jazz community that is talented and quite dedicated. Although audience participation in pure jazz is a little weak here.
JJ: I can see that.
NOJ :It is guys like you that I see as a bridge to a wider audience and that is an important aspect to your music and your appeal.
But let’s continue about your new album. The title of your new album Love in a Time of Madness. Is that a conscious derivative of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez book and what is the madness you are referring to?
JJ: For the longest time it was my working title and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be my actual title. It was about two and a half years ago when we started this. We weren’t in the full Trump era yet and all of this extended police brutality against African Americans and people of color hadn’t really hit the point where it is now. I find it almost debilitating. It has been kind of on my mind. Trump had started making remarks about women and I think the concept of trying to find something to hold on to, in a literal time of madness, was really attractive to me and I started to work towards that.
The madness part started to get totally crazy, it just got totally bananas man. You know the racism, the sexism, the economic instability, the Brexit vote, immigration wow. I just got overwhelmed by the realities of the news every day. So I thought, I don’t know if people want me or need me to put out a political album? It‘s so in your face already. The twenty-four-hour news cycle has been tough for me. So I decided to focus on a solution. For me that’s love. That is trying to connect to someone else, other than yourself. Also there are higher levels of the writing on the album that I hope people pick up on, you know trying to connect to a higher power or a higher source. Also to be honest with yourself. This is an honest album for me, you know it is not all roses and cupcakes.
NOJ: Not at all. I can see the gamut of emotions in this album. You touch on loss, fidelity, infidelity, arrogance, desire, infatuation. I mean it’s all there.
NOJ: I guess you were trying to convey love and all its messy truths, as an antidote to all the madness around you is that an accurate reading?
"I just got overwhelmed by the realities of the news every day. So I decided to focus on a solution. For me that's love."
JJ: Absolutely. Really, that is the only solution that I have been able to come up with. The economy is unstable. I perform in like forty countries a year. I have a lot of friends all over. We are all in the same boat. Everyone is just trying to pay the rent and stay focused and have a future. The only constant that I can see that we can draw on is either faith or love. And love is the one thing that sort of crosses not only genres but different religions and faith. Not to get super John Lennon on you, but I think love is the only way forward for all humanity.
NOJ: Love is all there is.
JJ: It’s all there is man. The opposite of love is kind of what we’re up against. Distrust and fear, and that is not just a long-term solution.
NOJ: You have always seem to push yourself musically. a commendable trait. You have always blurred genres and challenged yourself to be true to the music as you saw it at any given time. What was challenging to you about the music in this new album?
JJ: The challenging thing was twofold. First getting out of the way. I have always been such a control freak over my career. I have produced or written most of my albums that were not standards. This was really one of the first times when I said, I just want to be a singer. I want to write a little bit. I want to write as much as I want to and I want to focus on really expanding my voice. I started taking voice lessons again for the first time in twenty years. I started pushing myself the way like an Olympic athlete would push themselves, really specific stuff. The other thing was I had to change the way that I sang completely. I don’t mean technically, but stylistically. In jazz you are way more behind the beat, you have a wide vibrato. There is a wide sense of pitch sometimes, like you slide into notes differently. R & B there is no vibrato, it’s on, it’s a straight eighth note. So I really had to work hard, changing up my style because what I didn’t want it to sound like was someone who came from jazz singing R & B. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I wanted it to be very serious, contemporary R & B. It took a minute to switch over. I had been singing Billie Holiday for a solid year.
NOJ: You have an extraordinary instrument, why change your style so dramatically, embellish the music with so many electronics and effects that it subjugates that instrument to a less prominent role?
JJ: This is the kind of way I want to sing right now. If you look at it in terms of like a writer. If you write a certain kind of fiction, maybe you want to try writing a crime novel. For me its more about trying to expand my craft. It was really the Billie Holiday album; that album, that material, that trio- for me I kind of like I of hit my zenith in jazz right now. I can’t imagine surpassing that album artistically and frankly I am not satisfied with anything less than excellence. So I said ok, what else do I want to do, what is it that I have not done.
NOJ: You were once quoted as saying no other music is as satisfying as jazz. You went to the New School and studied with Junior (Mance) and you studied with Chico (Hamilton). Do you still feel that way about jazz or has it changed?
JJ: I don’t think it has changed per se. I just think change is good. I don’t want to say I will never sing jazz again. The irony of all this is that Fifty Shades Darker the soundtrack is out now and its number one on Bill Board and I am singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “You Can’t Take That Away From Me.” So there you go.
NOJ: Yeah, I get it. When you become too enamored with something you stop growing. It’s like when Miles was asked why he stopped playing ballads he answered “because I like them too much.”
NOJ: Most singers gravitate toward a good melody and good lyrics. You once said for you music is about the rhythm. Can you expound on that?
JJ: Well, I believe I read Charlie Parker talking about this somewhere. The rhythm is what advances first. If you’re talking about jazz music, you’re talking about Black music your talking about African music or African-American music, then the rhythm has always been the catalyst that really changes everything. So like, swing was this new beat that everyone jumped on and it had endless variations. That evolved into a lot of things, the backbeat, rhythm and blues, and all this other stuff. To me I always get excited by the beat, you know the rhythm. When I was in London, I fell in love with dubstep, drum and bass, broken beat and right now, what is exciting to me, is what we call trap beat, because it’s the newest beat for me since J. Dilla behind the beat hip-hop. Definitely it’s a growing thing. I see Glasper is experimenting with it. Definitely Christian Scott is working it out with Justin Brown and his band. Its interesting for me as a musician to take the parts of popular music and popular culture and put my own thing on top of it. Which is what we did on “Let if Fall” or Last Night.”
"...rhythm has always been the catalyst that really changes everything."
NOJ: Is there any song that you are closest to or particularly fond of on this album ?
JJ: As a performer I really like “What Good is Love” because it is the most operatic. The range is super wide and lyrically ... I have written some of my favorite lyrics. Singing with Oletta Adams, that is just a dream come true. “I’m Yours,” to be able to write a song and give it to an artist of her stature and her not only liking the song, but also wanting to record it and sound so good on it, that’s huge. Both of the collaborations, the one with Mali Music, is really special because I think we actually collaborated, meaning we created something new for each of us.
NOJ: (Robert) Glasper was recently quoted in an interview with Ethan Iverson as saying that he sometimes wanted to forgoe improvisational soloing and just get into long extended grooves.
JJ: It just feels good. You know what I mean. There is a reason why I am touring with just a drummer, because that is the most important part of my setup. Really, it always has been. I am more connected to the drums.
NOJ: So on your concert tour it’s just you and drummer Nate Smith?
JJ: Nate Smith for the U.S. and Richard Spaven for the E.U. and South America. Got to give the drummer some.
NOJ: How do you incorporate the art of improvisation in your music?
JJ: On this particular album?
NOJ: In general.
JJ: I think I am just open to the moment. I have come to the place where I believe it has to mean something for me to leave the written word or the melody. When I was younger, I definitely sang just to hear how it would sound and I was infatuated with Coltrane and Bird like everybody else. There is definitely something to that process, but I think any artist gets to the point where it has to have an emotional resonance. To me that is exciting. If you have done a variation on something that has been done before and to know that it is different because your different, that’s what is cool to me.
NOJ: Your delivery, especially on some of your rap and soul material, is reminiscent of the great Gil Scott-Heron. Was he an influence?
JJ: Yes and no. I was definitely aware of him and loved his catalogue. Early on people said Gil Scott-Heron when the Dreamer came out. He wasn’t anyone that I studied like I did with Billie or Coltrane. There were a few names that always came up right away Terry Callier, Gil Scott-Heron and Jon Lucien.
NOJ: Wow, Jon Lucien is a name I haven't heard in quite a long time. He did a magical version of "Dindi" from 1970 that just killed it.
JJ: Yeah, these guys are amazing. So, to get back to your question, Gil wasn’t a huge obvious influence, but he was a very influential person who I respect tremendously. What you said makes sense, he probably influenced a bunch of people who influenced me. Like every person in hip-hop.( Laughing)
NOJ: You always seem to have two or three projects on the burner what can we expect next from you?
JJ: The second I’m finished with one album I start working on the next one, so I am already working on that. I am hoping actually, without giving away too much, I am hoping to work with Christian McBride a little bit closer than I have in the past. We have collaborated on a few things. We really work well together. He is the busiest man in show business.
NOJ: My wife, who is not the biggest of jazz fans, loves him. We have seen him several times. The man has so much talent its astounding.
JJ: So much talent, so much. I want to do more stuff with him and I don’t know exactly what shape it will take, but we are going to make it happen.
NOJ: You start this tour March 16, 2017 at Center Stage in Atlanta and the how many dates do you have booked?
JJ: We are going through May 18, 20017 ending in Santiago, Chile. We go through April in the U.S ending in Seattle and then we go onto the E.U. for the rest of April and into May and then down to Mexico and South America so it’s a world tour. It’s going to be going all year.
NOJ: That’s quite rigorous. You are married and have a young daughter that must be tough.
JJ: Yeah, you know I love performing. I think anybody who is with a professional performer that is just part of the deal. I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t do it. I’m home a week and I start to think about gigs.(Laughs)
NOJ: I read somewhere that you did a bit of acting in the movie Fifty Shades of Darker?
JJ: That was an amazing experience. We recorded the songs for the soundtrack at Capital in studio "B" where Frank Sinatra originally recorded them using the same microphone. I got chills just walking in there with all that history. My first takes were just terrible because there was just too much history. We recorded everything as authentically as possible. I believe the tenor player was the same guy that was on the original Sinatra recording.
NOJ: How did you get into the acting gig?
JJ: In Fifty Shades of Darker, music is like the star in both the book and the movies, which is super cool. They really wanted, the director James Foley, wanted, an authentic feel across the board. The music, the sets, and everything about it. They were looking for a real jazz singer, who could really deliver the song, but also that had a look that was very multi-cultural, super cool and young. Thankfully I got the call. I went to Vancouver, and had an amazing three days of just working on one of the biggest projects I have ever been a part of. To this date, I think it has grossed $350 million dollars worldwide.
NOJ: I also read that you have aspirations to write a novel?
JJ: I do man. I have been taking notes for about eight years at this point. Every year I tell myself I am going to carve out some time to nail to nail down the first chapters, and every year I get busier and busier. The goal is to get busy enough so that I can take an entire year of and then I can sit down and just write this thing. It will be a crime novel based in New York City.
NOJ: Cool. I’m sure your listening fan base would be distraught if you took off a whole year without singing, but you got to do what you got to do. Follow your muse where ever it goes.
JJ: Exactly, but I’ll be happy when I get a book down.
NOJ: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. I appreciate it. Good luck with the album, the tour and your career.