I'm a big fan of the new jazz style emerging that incorporates touches of '70s soul, contemporary electronica and hip-hop. Exponents of this movement include pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Add to the list José James, a vocalist with retro smarts and a clear vision of where this jazz style is heading next.
James's new album—No Beginning, No End—is his fourth CD and a major step forward for the eclectic genre. If you've been listening to all sorts of exciting African-American music since the '60s, you'll hear their threads running throughout James's music here.
In addition to delivering rich jazz-soul vocals, James, 33, took a big risk: he conceived, produced and recorded the album independently without a recording contract. All of the varied instrumentation and ambient music that slip in and out build purposefully and with ringing textures. The result is a mighty vision that's executed beautifully—and James's ideas are consistently ambitious, from track to track.
James's coaxing vocals are framed by hypnotic grooves, trippy beats, tight horns, a Fender Rhodes, a gospel organ and layered female vocals—giving the music a late-night radio feel. What I love most about James's music is how it sifts together the spirits of Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron, Roy Ayers and other social-message soul giants—creating an intoxicating chill-funk brew. You're reminded of the '70s, but the music is distinctly pushing forward to a new place.
James's music is cohesive, experimental and different—but that's what makes it special. If jazz hopes to survive, it cannot be content to stand still or rely solely on the past. Risks must be taken by artists, and the past must be carefully mined for valid, adaptable concepts and statements. With this album, James has proven he's on the leading edge of the new movement.
Hats off to Blue Note's president Don Was for championing the sound. Keep it coming.JazzWax tracks: You'll find José James's No Beginning, No End (Blue Note) here.
JazzWax note: More on José James here.
JazzWax clip: Here's José James singing Vanguard. Dig the touches of Roy Ayers and hints of Stevie Wonder's You've Got It Bad Girl...