Stripped down and captivatingly raw, this is bonafide jazz all the way.
Thomas Barlow 2008-01-31
In an era ruled by songbook clones, the arrival of Brooklyn based vocalist José James is a breath of fresh air. Blessed with striking baritone vocal pipes (a little Terry Callier here, a lot of Gil Scott Heron there), the newcomer draws on the spiritually elevated heritage of Andy Bey and John Lucien to make earthy, intelligent, and downright sexy acoustic jazz.
Born in Minneapolis of Irish and Panamanian descent, James has learnt a thing or two about good song-writing in his 28 years. The Dreamer is a hugely impressive debut with James oozing class every time he opens his mouth. Just ask Gilles Peterson, who snapped up the singer after being handed a demo tape (a cover of John Coltrane’s Equinox) at a London club night.
And despite Peterson’s knack for discovering jazzy acts that keep dancefloors moving, The Dreamer is not a crossover album. Stripped down and captivatingly raw, this is bonafide jazz all the way.
Accompanied mostly by piano, double bass and drums (legendary bop player Junior Mance drops in for an excellent cover of Roland Kirk’s blues Spirits Above), the singer handles his laid-back, often self-penned material with assurance. The gorgeously romantic Blackeyedsusan is a delight; and a cover of Park Bench People by hip hoppers Freestyle Fellowship also maintains the sparse tone with a balmy backbeat and Gal Ben Haim’s guitar taking tasteful solo duties over a bassline borrowed from Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay.
Elsewhere, there’s plenty of evidence that James is not into crooning for nostalgia’s sake. Take the title track, a dedication to Martin Luther King that is catchy, soulful and smooth (in the best possible sense of the term). And despite the odd venture into up-tempo swing, or the drum 'n' bass and Fender Rhodes of Love, this record remains above-all a low-key delight (for proof, check out James pulling on the heartstrings on Bill Lee’s sorrowful Nola).