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Jose James: Two Sides, Same Coin

With a pair of different yet equally dynamic releases, vocalist José James arrives

It’s been a long time since a male jazz singer delivered an unapologetically sensual album. Blackmagic (Brownswood), the lubricious sophomore disc from José James, brings sexy back to jazz without the smut factor of, say, R. Kelly. “I can dig it,” says the Minneapolis-bred, now London-based singer-songwriter, 31. “Yeah, the music is sexy; it’s late-night.”

Even though the mid-’60s’ spiritual jazz is a significant touchstone of James’ music, Blackmagic undoubtedly leans closer to Leon Ware than Leon Thomas, as James’ baritone massages the songs’ languid melodies and lustful lyrics. By recruiting electronica producers such as Taylor McFerrin, Moodymann and Ben Westbeech, the disc reveals James’ involvement in DJ culture, something that he credits British jazz and dance guru Gilles Peterson with helping him develop. “[Peterson] took me from the New York jazz scene and put me around the world in a whole other scene, which is very club oriented. I’m thinking, ‘There are 500 people in the crowd and half of them are ladies.’ That’s what we want to see at a jazz concert,” James says. “I want to make music for our generation.”

His main collaborator on Blackmagic is the sonic experimentalist Flying Lotus, whose production covers both pointillist, avant-garde electronica and laidback, ’70s-influenced grooves. “All the best jazz singers of their time worked with the best composers. To me, that’s Flying Lotus right now,” James enthuses. “He’s making amazing stuff that really inspires me. I want to approach his work in the same way that I would have approached Thelonious Monk back in the day.”

Blackmagic includes mostly originals. Still, James shows his respect for jazz tradition by including a superb makeover of Buddy Johnson’s “Save Your Love for Me,” and by inviting the legendary Junior Mance to play piano on a riveting rendition of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” “My relationship with him means so much to me,” James says of Mance, who taught the young singer about blues at the New School in Manhattan. “Having him in my life just puts everything in perspective, musically and culturally; he helps me keep a real sense of dignity that goes with the music.”

When asked about the disc’s evocative title, James explains that its meaning conveys a double-edge sword. “Even in 2010, black is still a dirty word,” he says. “But that there’s magic to both the people and to the music made by black people. Europe has really been good to me in terms of artistic acceptance and [acceptance] of me as a person. But I also know that it could all go another way if I showed up in Europe and wasn’t an artist. It’s a complicated thing.”

In fact, James appears to be one of only a few black, male jazz singers to gain any sort of prominence in recent years. For all the global praise James’ 2008 debut, The Dreamer (Brownswood), reaped from the underground, it mostly fell on deaf ears in the American mainstream jazz scene. “I think it’s pretty clear if you look at who gets signed and what is getting released,” says James. “It’s almost like there’s nobody there. And it’s not because there aren’t any talented people. To be fair, there haven’t been a lot of straight-up black jazz male singers, but I can’t say that’s all because black dudes just want to sing R&B, either. I had to go all the way out to London to get my first record deal to sing jazz. That’s pretty crazy.”

But things are changing. For All We Know, James’ first major-label release, is due out on Impulse! on May 11, and features bracing duets with Belgian pianist Jef Neve on such chestnuts as “Autumn in New York,” “Embraceable You” and “Everyday I Have the Blues.” (For All We Know also constitutes the first album of newly recorded music released on Impulse!, now a subsidiary of Verve, since Alice Coltrane’s Translinear Light in 2004.) James first met Neve while touring in Europe to promote The Dreamer. Neve hosted the singer on his popular Brussels-based radio show, where he invites visiting musicians into the studio. “We played some of my stuff with his band and we did ‘Lush Life.’ We didn’t practice anything. We just hit it and it was so beautiful. It felt like we had been playing together for years.”

“There was a lot of confidence from the first moment on,” Neve adds via e-mail. “We both felt free to do whatever comes into our minds. I felt that I could play everything I wanted to play, and that I didn’t have to ‘back up’ the singer, which happens a lot with other singers. José has perfect pitch, and he’s controlling his voice and intonation as a horn player would.”

With For All We Know arriving so soon after the decidedly more groove-oriented Blackmagic, James risks confusing some listeners who have difficulty letting artists grow, change or demonstrate versatility. “I can’t really worry about it,” James argues. “Honestly, it’s all marketing. It’s funny because it seems as if it’s only in jazz that people have this ‘acoustic versus electric’ debate, especially if you’re a vocalist, which I understand. But each time someone comes out with a standard jazz quartet record, all the people say, ‘OK, but I’m bored with that.’ It’s almost as if you can do nothing right with the jazz crowd.”

Originally Published