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Singer-songwriter José James previews While You Were Sleeping


[Donald gets an advance chance to hear tracks from José James’ upcoming album played live, and discusses the musician’s unique, genre-crossing appeal. — the Artblog editors]

April will go down in history as a big month for the Philadelphia admirers of jazz singer-songwriter José James. Not only did James’ U.S. tour kick off in Philly on Tuesday, April 15, 2014, but the first single from his next studio album was released on iTunes that day–and these songs, first performed here, haven’t been heard publicly since they were recorded. Don’t we feel special?

The concert at World Café Live offered a world premiere of tracks from James’ forthcoming studio album, entitled While You Were Sleeping (not to be confused with the Sandra Bullock rom-com), which arrives everywhere June 10. The album is the follow-up to James’ excellent 2013 debut No Beginning No End, which captured a neo-soul/jazz fusion sound that has only been equaled by Robert Glasper in terms of execution.

Back in his groove

Album cover courtesy of Shervin Lainez.

Keyboardist Kris Bowers opened the show with tracks from his recently released album Heroes + Misfits. The tracks were a nice juxtaposition of funk and electronic music. Midway through Bowers’ set, Julia Easterlin entered to sing “Forget-Er,” a song filled with mysterious vocal layers and a stuttering military drum accompaniment. The highlight of the opener, though, was Easterlin’s smoky cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”. Her approach to the pop hit climaxed with precise falsettos–a new interpretation of the often-overplayed song. One could only wish that the original sounded THIS good.

About an hour into the evening, José James strutted onto the stage, swag and all. You could see right off the bat how much fun he was having performing this music before a live audience for the very first time.Clearly completely in his musical zone, the 36-year old singer displayed a certain freedom. A killer band supported James, including Bowers on keys, Solomon Dorsey on bass, Richard Spaven on drums, and Brad Williams on guitar.

James performing at World Cafe Live. Photo courtesy of Noah Silvestry.

The new album’s material has an indie-rock edge that James hasn’t previously attempted. The songs still have his signature soul inflections, but are infected with rock and electronic music. It’s amazing to me how he can float from genre to genre seamlessly, as if it’s all just pure music, involving no titles or preconceived notions. This is a great example of why it’s impossible to categorize José James. But since this is still improvised music, jazz neatly sums up his musical ambitions.

When introducing a track called “U R the 1,” James playfully teased, “We’re trying to make babies to this one.” With a fat bass line and lyrics like “move my hands up on ya, baby,” the track lives up to James’ promise; it’s reminiscent of something R&B singer Miguel might be inspired to write. “Simply Beautiful,” a song originally written and performed by the iconic Al Green, is also on the new album, but just barely made the cut, according to James. Green’s song is a master class in soul singing; the original track appears on Green’s I’m Still in Love with You (one of the all-time great albums, according to Rolling Stone magazine). James rose to the task of interpreting the song in a way that Green would be proud of.

Audience participation encouraged

Photo courtesy of Emily Winiker.

“EveryLittleThing,” the first single off While You Were Sleeping, is a tribute to James’ time in London underground clubs. A fun fact about this song is that it is James’ first song (and album, for that matter) to require a “Parental Advisory” label–something James admits to being very proud of. Played on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, “EveryLittleThing” sounded like the rocker’s brooding ghost was haunting the song. Because of the complicated textures and electronic swirls required on “EveryLittleThing” to make James’ vocals sound both rough and crisp, there were some microphone issues during the song. After taking a short break to get the vocal levels where they needed to be, James resumed the song with great success.

The much-demanded encore was the Aretha Franklin-influenced “Do You Feel,” which is one of the best cuts from No Beginning No End. The audience was most responsive to this particular song–so much that James negotiated a sing-along section that captured everyone in perfect unison. It was a moment that proved that a jazz melody could be just as catchy as any other genre’s melodic structure when it is simplified to a level at which everyone can participate.

James’ vocal timbre has a unique quality that differs from the Kurt Ellings and Gregory Porters of the world. When he croons, he manages to sound sensitive and gentle, yet expressive at the same time. While he is frequently compared to Nat King Cole and Lou Rawls, he is surely building his own musical pedestal.

José James easily differs from his contemporaries by refusing to stay complacent and create a sound that is already successful with listeners. While Grammy voters have neglected James in the past, While You Were Sleeping ought to get him the recognition he deserves for constantly challenging his audience–and himself.

Donald Hunt is a vocalist, cellist, writer, and arts management professional living in Philadelphia. He is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and a graduate student in Drexel’s Arts Administration program.