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07/05/14

Jose James
While You Were Sleeping
Blue Note Records

On his fifth studio album, inveterate genre-blurrer José James again travels in dynamic new directions. This is obvious just two seconds into the first track, “Angel,” as guitarist Brad Allen Williams unleashes an opening riff that isn’t jazz, isn’t soul, but pure, blazing rock. James, wading through a storm cloud shaped by Williams and Solomon Dorsey (on bass and backing vocals), adopts a funk-fueled sound that owes more to Frank Ocean than to Marvin Gaye.

The soulfulness that has on previous projects linked James so strongly to Gaye and Al Green is still evident, particularly on the spiritual quest “Bodhisattva” and his twining with vocalist Becca Stevens on her sensual “Dragon.” But this is a generally harder, more streetwise James. The addition of Williams to his stellar core group—Dorsey, keyboardist Kris Bowers and drummer Richard Spaven—is key to James’ latest manifestation. He helps drive and enrich everything from the soaring, hard-rocking “Anywhere U Go” and pounding, panting “EveryLittleThing” to the dispirited “Noble Truths.”

Love—its lure, its loss, its dangers and joys—is James’ overarching theme, as it was on his previous, mellower No Beginning No End. But its pursuit now has a heightened urgency, a more brazen passion. Then, just when you’ve grown accustomed to the thrilling lengths James and company are venturing to, they take a 180-degree turn to close with a stunningly tender saunter through Green’s “Simply Beautiful,” featuring guest trumpeter Takuya Kuroda.

Originally published in June 2014
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