Photo Credit: Damon Winter/NY Times

Photo Credit: Damon Winter/NY Times

In a music roundup at the beginning of 2013, I mentioned four male vocalists that I believe everyone should get to know: MuthaWit’s Boston Fielder; British soul crooner Michael Kiwanuka; jazz classicist Gregory Porter; genre-mashing vocalist Jose James.

In fact, the descriptive “genre-mashing” is probably most appropriate for James’s latest release, While You Were Sleeping, which came out a few days ago.  For those who fell in love with his earlier efforts, particularly his previous album No Beginning No End, this album might sound like a radical departure, but that’s hardly the case.  Yes, it’s got a more guitar-driven, rock edge thanks to the addition of guitarist Brad Allen Williams. Along with that, he weaves in elements of folk, funk, blues, hip hop and R&B.  It’s like he’s spent his four previous albums proving and reinforcing his jazz vocal bona fides, and now it’s time for him to spread out and reflect the music that influenced him, everything from contemporary artists like Frank Ocean and James Blake, to Nirvana, Radiohead and Madlib.  He’s also collaborated with other boundary-pushers such as Flying Lotus and Taylor McFerrin.  No man is an island, especially these days.

Yes, James is experimenting and exploring, but he’s solidly rooted in jazz and soul.  In fact, he’s never one to shy away from that good head-nod, whether it’s on the opening track of his last album, “It’s All Over (Your Body)” or the new album’s opener “Angel.”  He can explore spirituality, as exemplified by “4 Noble Truths” and “Bodhisattva” (one of my favorite tracks, which reminds me, vibe-wise, of Paul Haslinger & Nona Hendryx’s “Higher Purpose” from the Sleeper Cell soundtrack).  Here’s what James had to say about the song:

“It’s a Buddhist term that means enlightened being,” he explains. Written during a stop in Jakarta while on tour, the song was James’ first song written outside of No Beginning No End. “I was staying in a hotel modeled after the famous Borobudur Temple where I started to feel a beautiful spiritual presence. One day I was walking through the gardens surrounded by statues of Bodhisattvas and heard a Muslim call to prayer. I got inspired to write a song about unity and compassion that would be as deeply spiritual as my time in Jakarta.”

Take a listen:

But the sensual isn’t far off (see “UR The 1” and “XX”), as well as his cover of the Al Green classic, “Simply Beautiful” featuring longtime bandmate (and now labelmate) trumpeter Takuya Kuroda.  Covers are tricky and it’s typically best to stay away from them unless you’re absolutely able to own it (see Alice Smith’s version of “Fool For You”. Cee-Lo who?).  James, on the other hand, is able to do that thing that’s even more rare: Keep the shape and feel of the original, while rounding it out.  He did this masterfully on 2008’s The Dreamer when he covered Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Spirits Up Above”.  For “Simply Beautiful,” he takes Al Green’s song, slows it a bit, shows the power of a restrained voicing, and makes it all the more warm and intimate by adding Kuroda’s horn.

Bottom line: This is an album worth hearing and an artist worth watching.

Speaking of which, NYC, you can still check out Jose tonight at the Highline Ballroom. Talented pianist (and bandmate) Kris Bowers opens.


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