José James sings ‘Love in a Time of Madness’ at the Foundry
Donald Hunt revisits an artist he loves, José James, whose performance at the intimate club, the Foundry, surprised with the artist doing an impassioned and political rap turn in addition to his beloved R+B songs from the post-election-inspired album, 'Love in a Time of Madness.'

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When the 24-hour news cycle spins out discouraging stories that become all-too-consuming for the masses, what does José James do? He turns all the chaos into an unabashed love fest – allowing his music to pour the love into his listeners who need some relief. With his new release on Blue Note Records appropriately titled Love in a Time of Madness, the shape shifting jazz singer-songwriter fully embraces the sounds of contemporary R&B. James brought the love to Philadelphia in a performance at the Foundry on March 19: a cozy, industrial style club that even the Rat Pack would have torn up in their day.

Portrait of Jose James, courtesy of Shervin Lainez.
Portrait of Jose James, courtesy of Shervin Lainez.

A small band and a backing track

In comparison to the previous James show I saw in 2014 (the band consisted of a keyboardist, guitarist, bassist and percussionist), this outing only had James, drum virtuoso Nate Smith, and a maze-filled visual backdrop on stage. The rest of the music came from a backing track, which honestly was kind of a drag. One reason for the lack of instrumentalists is that a good amount of this album’s music is beat-driven – emphasizing the computer-made sound more than live instrumentation. Also, the stage at the Foundry is simply too small to fit the necessary instruments.

The lack of a band was especially evident in the gorgeous “To Be With You”, a song that has one of those 70s-esque soul piano lines that must be heard from the instrument itself. The audience really deserved the union of piano and James’ smoothly drawn baritone.

A large portion of the concert was naturally comprised of songs from the recent album. The concert’s opening track was the album’s first single “Always There”, a song that I fell in love with upon its January premiere. Backed with an infectious trap-driven bass beat, “Always There” has a sex appeal to it that immediately captured the chilled-out crowd. Other memorable songs in the concert included Minneapolis-funk-inspired “Live Your Fantasy” (a James shout-out to the late Prince) and a more-soulful-than-ever, remixed version of audience favorite “Trouble”.

Portrait of Jose James, courtesy of Shervin Lainez.
Portrait of Jose James, courtesy of Shervin Lainez.

Nate Smith’s drum beats and James’s rap turn

For the last year or so, James has shared with his fans on social media videos of Nate Smith’s energetic and improvised drum breaks. (See some here.) The live drum breaks were a real highlight of the set. Following Smith’s solo, James did some programming: mixing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with old school hip hop. Finally, James did some “spitting” of his own, and taking on the “madness” that he had to get off his chest. The artist displayed a lot of bravado in both rhythm and range as he rap-sang an anti-police brutality anthem called “Police State”. His resistance reached a peak when he defiantly asserted a line that is shared by many Americans: Fuck Donald Trump.

In the encore section, James performed his most acclaimed song “Come to my Door” from No Beginning No End, his 2013 Blue Note Records debut album (still remains his most cohesive album to date). At this point, James’ voice was a bit tired after the demanding rap section but the audience was enthusiastic to hear the Emily King-penned song nonetheless. Also, this was the only time in which James backed himself on the guitar. His voice didn’t maintain the same quality as he did without the guitar, proving the challenge that is accompanying oneself in the goal of sounding equally crisp on both musical parts.

Doing what he loves from his soul

What’s most impressive about José James is his need to continually find new sounds and ways to express the words from his soul. Many want him to stay in the lane that he first established as a wonderful jazz vocalist, but James has much too versatility, and time and again shows he will not be stunted by lazy music listeners who don’t want to evolve with his artistic journey. If only more artists today were as experimental and unafraid about alienating listeners. James is one of the great ones of his generation.

Here you can find more information on José James and the remainder of his “Love In A Time of Madness” tour dates.

Tags

jazz, josé james, philadelphia

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