James refines his sound on this Blue Note debut, with impressive results.
Marcus J. Moore 2013-01-21
It’s probably too easy to label José James a “jazz musician”. Sure, his smoky blend includes the genre’s wafting keys and spacious improvisation, but James’ aesthetic is a bit more supernatural.
Through it, the Minnesota native drifts into mystical terrain with a smouldering glow that’s part hip hop, part dusty soul, and entirely natural.
There’s a sense of calm that permeates James’ music, yet it harbours just enough edge to make waves in an upbeat setting. On his 2010 album, Blackmagic, songs like Made for Love and the title track could work both in a historic jazz spot or a hip hop superclub.
On this new album, James forgoes the electronic excess for a tighter collection of acoustic soul melodies. Here, he isn’t so focused on alternative sounds; instead, James is able to streamline his approach and keep the vitality of his previous work.
While there’s no denying his iridescent voice, the soundtrack enhances the album’s vigour and solidifies its wistful mood. A track like Trouble, with its rising horn fills and light organs, is bolstered by the evocative instrumental.
Conversely, Tomorrow – the album’s sombre closer – is given life through James’ downtrodden pangs of loneliness. The “long winter” he refers to is far more desperate against a backdrop of rising piano chords and depressing strings.
On Come to My Door, James wants to make peace with an estranged love one who leaves to “find something to believe in”.
No Beginning No End is an incredibly intimate portrayal of love lost and found, personal struggle, self-doubt and reassurance. It’s an introspective take on the complexities of romance and its mind-crippling fallout, told from the mature perspective of a fully realised musician.
Sword + Gun, however, plays like a tribal stance against war. It provides a rare change of pace for the album, which ultimately cruises along as the singer hums with clear-headed candour.
What remains is a nocturnal set of refined resonance. There’s no labelling that.