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José James: Why The Female Of The Species Is Groovier Than The Male


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Even the super-greats like Sinatra basically got everything from Billie Holiday.
—José James
Jazz singer José James considers Erykah Badu to be the Joni Mitchell of his generation, a woman who has constructed a world of her own in order to tell her own alternative story. To prove the point, earlier this year he released On & On (Rainbow Blonde), a whole album of Badu songs, which he has been performing on tour. This tribute to Badu's songwriting follows previous albums dedicated to Billie Holiday (Yesterday I Had the Blues, Blue Note, 2015) and Bill Withers (Lean on Me, Blue Note, 2018). On stage at London's Lafayette, James unveiled the virtuoso band who recorded On & On, including keyboard wizard Bigyuki, 19-year old alto saxophonist Ebban Dorsey, and drummer Jharis Yokley. The singer has always combined his jazz chops with improvisatory vocal techniques from the hip-hop tradition: he repeats and fragments lyrics as if they are being scratched by a DJ; he gradually slows down one tune at the end as if the power had been switched off.

Like all international touring artists, he has learned to take the vagaries of air travel in his stride. At Cheltenham Jazz Festival a few years back, he arrived straight from a gig in Estonia, and performed with intensity and passion after a mere two hours' sleep. It was the same story at Lafayette: after the previous night's gig in Murcia, south-eastern Spain, he once again arrived with two hours' sleep, not to mention tales of lost luggage, a delayed flight and another dash direct to the venue. James has a soft spot for London: it was here that he was finally "discovered" after spending years trying to get noticed back in New York. His first album The Dreamer (Brownswood Recordings, 2007) resulted in airplay for the super-cool "Park Bench People," a song about homelessness based on the chords of "Red Clay." Since that debut, he has ranged far and wide across the genres: always with a jazz attitude, but with forays into rock (While You Were Sleeping (Blue Note, 2014), soul (Lean on Me), funk and hip-hop.

Backstage at Lafayette, tired though he was, he amiably fielded a series of questions about his life and career to date.

All About Jazz: Is the industry confused about who you are, genre-wise?

José James: Yeah, I think it does confuse the industry, but if you're being a progressive artist, that's part of your job. All the people I admire, like Nina Simone or David Bowie or Miles Davis—they always challenged themselves. It might come off like an egotistical thing, but it's not that. If you're truly following your muse, then you're led to the next thing. You're not thinking, first and foremost, about how am I going to sell it? If I'd wanted that kind of career I would have just done pop or r&b straight out the gate. But for me the point of jazz is to be able to stretch myself, and I think the question I'm asking myself now with On & On is, what is the role of the jazz singer today in 2023? Can we interpret things outside the standards, or even things outside originals? What about Badu's music?

AAJ: At a recent London gig, Theo Croker insisted that jazz is dead. What he really meant, of course, was that the word "jazz" has a sort of deadening or turning-off effect on the public as a whole.

JJ: Yeah, and the funny thing is that if people like it, then nobody blinks. When I did the Bill Withers tribute, everyone was like, oh man I love this. No one says it should be more jazzy. Put it like this: I've learned the limitations of my audience. Like, the boundaries—how far I can push it. And basically, if there's a band involved, I can do pretty much whatever I want. If it's more electronic, then it leaves my audience cold. Touring Love in the Time of Madness (Blue Note, 2017) was just live drums, Ableton, me on guitar, and an extensive light show... [Ableton is a company that supplies software and hardware for the creation of electronic music]... and that did not work with my audience. They want to see me interact with a band. Which I understand. That's the jazz part, even if it's the tribute to Bill Withers or more r&b stuff, it's still that interaction that Marvin Gaye had, or Al Green, that is jazz-based. So they can understand that. Or Prince. I don't think of Prince as a jazz artist per se, but there's a lot of jazz concept in what he does.

AAJ: You're from Minneapolis, as Prince was. What was it like, socially and musically, when you were growing up there in the Eighties?

JJ: I think socially it's a mixture of a very nice midwestern, pleasant place to grow up, and also very segregated. It's still very segregated, and that's kinda weird. North Minneapolis is Black Minneapolis, basically. That's where Prince grew up. And there's a ton of gang violence, and it's actually a really kinda dangerous city. And now it's even worse, with George Floyd and police brutality. It's escalated even worse than it was when I was a kid.

AAJ: Did you grow up in that part of town?

JJ: I grew up in three parts of town, so one was a working class, blue collar Polish-Irish neighborhood, then I moved to the north side, and the last place I lived with my mom was south Minneapolis, basically two blocks from where George Floyd was murdered. My first gig was right there. Minneapolis is one of the best places to come up as an artist, because there's a lot of funding and support for the arts in general. There's a huge theater scene—the Guthrie Theater is world-renowned, we have the Walker Arts Center, which is internationally acclaimed, so there's always cool things coming through. And the programming is great. I remember seeing David Murray's nine-piece band doing all Coltrane, for example, or Fred Ho doing a tribute to the Black Panthers with his jazz ensemble.

AAJ: Socially-aware music.

JJ: Definitely. I came up in a scene that was really Chicago and Detroit-based musicians, who were in the Black Arts movement and AACM members [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. So it was like Lester Bowie, Douglas Ewart, Roscoe Mitchell, Donald Washington, who was James Carter's mentor; Kevin Washington, who played drums in my own band; Fay Washington, his wife, the opera-singer and flutist. I was around that energy... I really got the radical, poetry, avant-garde entry point. I met Louis Alemayehu, the performance poet, who had a band with Kerry Thomas called Ancestor Energy. I was always playing jazz at the coffee shop where I worked. As well as Kevin Washington, I had Geoffrey Bailey on upright bass, Donald Washington on tenor, and David Moore on cello. And it was all original wordless stuff that I composed. I really loved Bobby McFerrin, and he was the artistic director of the St Paul chamber orchestra. I'd see him around town a lot. I saw him conducting with Chick Corea, all Mozart, and then they would do their famous duets. So he was a huge influence on me back then. And I was doing songs like "Equinox," and I wrote lyrics to that.

AAJ: You went on to study at the New School in New York. What was that like?

JJ: It was fascinating. You had these legends like Chico Hamilton, who started it, Junior Mance, Charles Tolliver, Reggie Workman, Bernard Purdie. They'd all just be hanging out. Just really heavy, beautiful cats. The vocal program was interesting because the meat and potatoes of it I had already learned by experience, so I already knew how to sing standards, and how to choose my key, and write an arrangement, and all that kinda stuff. So I really spent most of my time in practice rooms just being weird. I'd get up with a drummer and just improvise for two hours. There were two camps: there were super straight-ahead white guys who all wanted to play like Brad Mehldau, and then there was the black camp who all wanted to go where Robert Glasper was heading, cos he had just graduated. And there wasn't really anything in between. And I was sort of in-between because I liked both, but I wanted to try to develop something new. And that wasn't the vibe. So I spent a lot of time to myself, which is how I ended up writing The Dreamer and coming up with my own sound. And I'm grateful now because I wasn't pulled into a scene.

AAJ: You've talked about Erykah Badu and Bobby McFerrin. What other heroes would you name in the pantheon of jazz singers?

JJ: Louis Armstrong, who invented it. Billie Holiday, who took it to the highest form. I don't think anyone's touched her, to be honest. Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter... The women kill the men: there's no male jazz singer who's as good as a woman jazz singer, to me.

AAJ: Why are there so many female jazz singers and so few male?

JJ: Sexism, I think. Even now, it's very difficult for women instrumentalists to make it in jazz. The singing is the place that women have to themselves. The men are the minority. So we have our Mel Tormes and we have our Sinatras and our Tony Bennetts and our Nat King Coles, but it's a short list. You could probably boil it down to twenty all-time great male jazz singers. But of course with the ladies, wow, there's Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald... Even the super-greats like Sinatra basically got everything from Billie Holiday. He's gone on record saying that.

AAJ: Isn't Sinatra more of a pop singer?

JJ: I've been in a deep Sinatra study, because I'm writing a book about jazz singing. If you listen to "Come Fly with Me," the way that he phrases... his improvisation is completely rhythmic. It's kind of a throwaway song, a novelty album at the time. When you look at what he does, it's really deeply impressive. It's a step beyond phrasing. I consider it rhythmic improvisation. Part of the book is interviews. I've got Dianne Reeves, Andy Bey, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Gretchen Parlato, Sheila Jordan—real living practitioners of it who shared singer-to-singer about the process. Kurt Elling—who I really look up to. I will say Kurt Elling probably has the best technique out of anybody doing jazz right now. Him and Bobby McFerrin.

AAJ: Did you ever meet Jon Hendricks?

JJ: I did, but it didn't go well. I met Jon Hendricks backstage at the Iridium in New York in the early 2000s. He asked me to sing some of my vocalese pieces, so I performed my versions of "Central Park West" and "Equinox." Long story short, he didn't like either, and gave me a lecture about how to write vocalese lyrics. I understand his perspective, his style of writing is much less abstract and more literal—"Cottontail" for example. But it was a disappointing encounter, especially as I was—and am---a huge fan of his work and writing.

AAJ: At Ronnie Scott's a few years ago you delivered a long speech about how in New York nobody wanted to know you, and it only started happening when you came to London. What exactly happened?

JJ: It was the coldest weather on record, and the [dollar/pound] exchange rate was brutal, and I was here for an international vocal jazz competition. And I was not a young singer at that point—I was 27, I think, which is pretty late to get started in the business. I'd made a little EP—five tracks—with "Equinox," "Central Park West," a thing called "Resolution," "The Dreamer... " and one other song I can't remember. And I was just handing them out all over London. I did the competition at the Vortex, didn't make it to the semi-finals—which crushed me—and had to hang out in London for a week, because you had to book your travel for if you had won. So basically I was super—broke, I had five pounds left to my name, and it was freezing, and I went to a little jazz bar by the Vortex, and I'll never forget the kindness of this bartender. He was chatting me up, this typical London friendly vibe, and I told him I'm here for the competition, I'm a jazz singer... and I gave him an EP. And he put it on! That would never happen in New York, ever. Like, never never never. He stopped whatever Miles Davis he was playing, put mine in and played it. And someone heard it and gave a copy to Gilles Peterson, who was playing at Cargo that night. And that's how it all popped off for me. It was a really beautiful serendipitous moment.

AAJ: Lucky, maybe. But you were probably due some luck by that time.

JJ: I was ready. Jazz is kinda tough because it's a mature art form, and you don't wanna arrive too soon, in a way.

AAJ: How have your musical tastes changed over the years?

JJ: When I was a kid, the two greatest stars in my musical world were Michael Jackson and Prince. I was born in '78, so Purple Rain was huge, Off the Wall, Thriller. There was nothing bigger than Thriller. I saw Michael when I was eight, which was incredible---never forget it. I'm a child of the hip-hop generation, so I really grew up taking in the Nineties hip-hop, the golden age of hip-hop and also grunge—I guess you'd call it indie-rock today—you know, Nirvana and Soundgarden and 10,000 Maniacs. And through the samples of jazz in hip-hop, I discovered jazz.

AAJ: What is your next recording going to be?

JJ: I'm living in LA now, and there's an incredible scene out there, so I'm hoping to do some more collaborations with Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin. I actually met Thundercat in Tokyo, so I'd love to do something with him too. I've been working on a piece for about five years now called "1978," which was the year I was born and a fascinating year for music in the world as well. And it's going to be a deeply personal project that combines my love of jazz and all the influences I grew up with, within a jazz concept. I'm probably going to record it later this year. Just finishing up the writing of it now. It should be out some time from Spring of next year.




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