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Jose James: Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday

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Once in a great while there comes along an album that you know at first spin is one for the ages. José James’ Yesterday I Had the Blues, his triumphant homage to Billie Holiday at her centenary, numbers among that precious ilk. In the liner notes James says he discovered Holiday in his teens and was transformed. “What I learned during that time not only taught me how to sing jazz,” he observes, “it taught me to better relate to the world.”

Which helps explain why his takes on nine Holiday-related gems are so masterfully pellucid. The album, produced by Don Was, is entirely absent of flash-no grandstanding, no posturing, not an ounce of excess. It is, pure and simply, James digging deep inside each lyric, exposing its universal truths. Abetting such effective clarity is one of the finest rhythm sections imaginable-keyboardist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland-shaping accompaniment that’s at once understated and bursting with insight.

James’ sound, like Holiday’s, is utterly unique, blending the noble authority of Billy Eckstine with the interpretive intuition of Mel Tormé and the soulfulness of Sam Cooke. His instincts, whether navigating the recurrent self-pity of “Good Morning Heartache,” the tender longing of “I Thought About You,” the simmering desire of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” or the searing pain of “Strange Fruit,” are, in a word, flawless.

Originally Published