Beats or no beats, this boy has something going on.
Louis Pattison 2010
Minneapolis-born José James is blessed with the sort of honeyed baritone that would have made him a jazz star in whichever decade he emerged from. If that has you primed for the sort of anodyne crooner that’s resident in cocktail bars worldwide, though, think again. James found his way into the genre through the loops of Daisy Age-era hip hop acts like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest before discovering Ellington and Coltrane and enrolling on New York’s forward-thinking New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music Vocal Program.
Happily, his music reflects this, making a decent fist of reconciling the weighty history of his chosen idiom with a style firmly rooted in the modern. Helping James out on his second album, Blackmagic, is a raft of producers, including jazzy Detroit house veteran Moodymann, Brooklyn producer Taylor McFerrin and Warp Records’ electronica sensation Flying Lotus. The opening Code, featuring Flying Lotus at the controls, is a fine example of this synthesis. Soft, oozing funk with a liquid keyboard line, James is restrained but insistent in his delivery, and the whole thing has a woozy, organic feel.
Such is typical of Blackmagic, which draws extensively on hip hop and dance culture, but presents its fusions with a blurry, down-tempo spin that should keep all but the most staid jazz heads onside.
Warrior, for example, is an interpretation of Emotions, an instrumental track by dubstep veteran Benga – but James’ band approach it like a live jam, swinging drums and scurrying piano delivered with a propulsive repetition that’s curiously reminiscent of the early work of Chicago post-rockers Tortoise. The Moodymann-produced track, Detroit Loveletter, meanwhile, slows down house rhythms to a jazzy shuffle peppered with languid Rhodes keys, and while the extraneous sounds might verge on chill-out cliché – mmm, running water, nice – James’ commanding, almost criminally sensual delivery smoothes over any flaws.
Beyond such crossover-tinged moments, though, there’s much evidence that James has the skills to hold his own. Love Conversation, a gorgeous duet with Jordana De Lovely, is destined to find its way onto a thousand lover’s playlists; and the closing No Tellin’, a startlingly assured solo piano piece, suggests that beats or no beats, this boy has something going on.