He’s the man with the Glenlivet baritone; a refreshingly cold-to-the-touch vocal delivery that warms and inebriates each of his listeners and onlookers. José James has known rivers, allowing his muse to guide him from his native Minneapolis, to Seattle, over to London, and has now found himself in Brooklyn. His albums, The Dreamer (2008), BlackMagic (2010) and For All We Know (2010) have been explorations in jazz, hip-hop and electronica, within all of which you can pinpoint his inspirations, which are about as varied as they might seem: John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ice Cube, J Dilla, Michael Jackson, Bobby McFerrin. He treats his albums like a child treats a shiny new Christmas gift, embracing, playing and mastering it until it’s time conquer the next toy, without so much as a backward glance. His forthcoming release, No Beginning No End, an exploration of soul, is just another block he walks in his metropolis of genre-shattering self-discovery.
Your father was a multi-instrumentalist. Did he have a hand in encouraging you to become an artist?
Not at all. He really discouraged me from doing music because it’s such a hard profession. I wanted to be a writer first; I didn’t get into music until I was 17. The first big book I got into was “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. Then it was James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, those kinds of authors. I think their perspective of African-American culture and how music fits into that is really important.
Tell me about the music you grew up listening to as a kid.
My mom’s a big hippie so I heard Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell…I liked everything as a kid. I thought everything was good. But then I started getting into my own stuff, like Prince, and of course, Michael Jackson – Off The Wall, Bad and Thriller; those were the records that I bought, my vinyl. And then CDs came in, in high school – I moved to Seattle for a while too – so Nirvana and the whole grunge thing was just popping off and that was cool. And then hip-hop just exploded; Cube’s The Predator; Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication, De La Soul is Dead and Buhloone Mindstate, A Tribe Called Quest, Rakim and Pharcyde, the Geto Boys, Cypress Hills and Digable Planets. It was a great two year period for music back then.
That’s quite an eclectic array of music you came up on, but I couldn’t help but notice that you didn’t mention any jazz artists. When did jazz become part of your life?
It came later. I got introduced to Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk later in high school. I think I heard some samples of Tribe’s stuff, and I was looking at [album] credits and checking out these names I never heard of. I didn’t know a lot about jazz. I just knew, like most people, the big names like Billie [Holiday], Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker. So I started with those people, not even albums, but samplers.
Most artists recall that 1st jazz album they hear as being the spark for their musical ambitions. What was that record for you?
It wasn’t any one record, it was the whole thing. It was like walking into this room with all these superheroes, because everybody’s amazing. Everybody’s so killin’ on their instrument and all the sidemen and everything… I would go down the line and look who played piano on this. Ok, Sonny Clarke and then he’s got a whole wealth of material as a leader, and it just goes on and on and on. Max Roach, same thing. It wasn’t really an album, it was more of the realization that there’s this whole world of music, and musicians and this treasure trove of art. Although I will say that Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch was a huge record for me. Coltrane had a huge impression on me as well.
When did you make the decision that music would in fact be your career choice?
I think I just wasn’t good at anything else [laughs]. I couldn’t play basketball; I wasn’t tall enough. There was nothing else I wanted to do really. So I started getting gigs and opportunities. I said “I really like this. Let me try it out.” Minneapolis is a really easy town. It’s pretty cheap, the rent is cheap, it’s a good standard of living so it’s easy to be an artist there. So I just spent the next few years gigging, trying a lot of experimental stuff: theater, music, poetry, blending it all together. I did some solo shows because I was really influenced by Bobby McFerrin, who was living there too. He was the Artistic Director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. I did a whole series of duo shows; me with a soprano sax, me with a piano, me with another singer, me with a drummer. And then I had my own band, it was a quintet.
How active were you in trying to obtain a record deal while you were in Minnesota?
I wasn’t really at the time. I was just enjoying the music. Really, I just wanted to buy more records [laughs]. I think it’s just different with jazz. Once you decide you’re going to do jazz, you realize it’s going to take you your whole life to do anything original and to get to a level that’s anywhere close to Ella, or Miles or any of these people, stylistically. I think anybody who thinks they’re, like, soaking in right away, is just not going to last long in jazz. It’s a whole different mindset. I wasn’t thinking about making a record, because I didn’t have anything original to say. I just wanted to learn the standards, and that takes years of practice and jam sessions and buying real books and trying to figure out what people are doing. It’s like trying to unlock a code.
What motivated you to eventually pursue a recording contract? Who were the people that made you feel you could succeed in that regard?
I think the signings that were happening in the ‘90s made it seem that there was more of a scene. All of the ‘young lions’ were going to sign; Roy [Hargrove], Christian McBride, and singers, you had Kurt Elling and Cassandra Wilson. Those were the two singers I followed in the ‘90s who were really out there, on Blue Note, doing some progressive work as singers; I thought it was pretty cool. I didn’t really want to be like them musically, but they were the two biggest examples of [jazz] singers in the ‘90s.
Is that why you came to New York to enroll in the New School For Jazz & Contemporary Music?
That’s where all the connections are basically. College is the only way to get into it if you don’t know anyone in New York. I didn’t really want to go to school, per se, and I only stayed a year. But I think you have to go to New York. That’s where all the musicians are. It’s better in Minneapolis, in terms of creativity; that’s really rewarded with tons of grants and funding, but in terms of having a career – getting any type of press, a label deal – you have to come to New York.
So how did your first recording deal finally happen?
I went to London for the 2006 International Vocal Competition, and I was one out of 10 singers, I think. I recorded an EP right before I went, which included “The Dreamer,” some other original stuff, some Coltrane pieces and I just gave it to a lot of people. I spent a whole week in London, met a whole bunch of people, and Gilles Peterson got a copy. He told me he was starting a new label, Brownswood, and asked would I want to sign. I was the third artist on that label. I made The Dreamer [LP] saying that if I only make one record in my lifetime, I want to be able to stand by it for the rest of my life. That was my statement on jazz and music, and I think it’s my best record so far. It’s definitely my most complete statement on a personal artistic level.
The music on The Dreamer is very subdued and sensual in terms of both its music and your vocals. Is sensuality a natural part of your artistry?
In terms of sensuality, I love Billie Holiday and Marvin Gaye. They were very “close-mic” singers, kind of whispering almost. The microphone is an instrument, and singers more than anybody use it in a different way. Billie Holiday couldn’t have existed as a singer in the jazz field without a microphone. Before her, everybody just sang with these huge voices and they didn’t need a mic.
After the all-out jazz recording of The Dreamer, you collaborated with Flying Lotus on Blackmagic. What was it like being produced by him?
It was just natural. I think his EP was out, Reset, and that was the first thing I heard and I loved the whole thing. He was in London and Gilles said ‘do you want to meet him’ and I said yeah. A couple days later, we just met and had a drink. I said I like your work, but I wasn’t thinking about working with him. I was cutting down tracks to get the 10 tracks that became The Dreamer. I had about 28 tracks that were done. I gave him all the tracks just to see what he thinks, and he really liked it and he said, “we should do something.” Then, he was working on his Los Angeles album. He wanted me to do this track called “Visions of Violet.” That was our first connection. He decided not to use it for the album and we just put it out on vinyl. Actually, it was the B-side to “Park Bench People,” and people were like, ‘Yo, this is really dope.’ And we started making a lot of tracks for fun, basically. After a couple, I realized, ‘this is a really interesting direction for me, and maybe this is what I should do for the next project.’ I knew I wasn’t going to do another jazz kind of album, so he just came at the right time.
You mentioned “Park Bench People.” You transcribed that from Freestyle Fellowship’s rap lyrics over Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.” You also wrote lyrics to Coltrane’s “Equinox.” How did this skill enter you repertoire?
John Hendricks is the guy who really perfected that as an art form. You’re just trying to tell a story and trying to find a word that sounds like what they’re playing. When I sing that solo (“Equinox”) I want it to sound as close as possible to that solo, and sometimes a word in a story that would work better just doesn’t sound right, so you have to find the vowel or consonant that makes it work. I’d never do it now, because it’s too difficult. I did that when I was 17 and I had all the time in the world. It’s a real challenge and working with a great band really helps make it alive, instead of a recreation. I feel like now it’s gotten to the point when it feels like we’re playing “Equinox.”
Blackmagic had a lot electronic inflections on it. Why did you go so left of The Dreamer?
I knew after [The Dreamer] was done and after I’d toured it for a good couple years, I knew I couldn’t make another statement in that way. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I knew I just couldn’t do exactly that. Just like now, I know I can never make another record like Blackmagic. A lot of people want me to work with Lotus again, but I can’t. You can’t repeat yourself. I want go back to working with musicians. That’s where my heart is.
You’ve recently been singing with McCoy Tyner on tour. How did this tremendous opportunity come your way?
This is the 50th anniversary of Impulse [Records], and so, they wanted to do the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane record. At the time I had gotten those three nights that I did at Lincoln Center, the Rose Theater, with Wynton [Marsalis] and Billy Strayhorn. We did “Lush Life” which is also on that record. So, either they heard that, or they knew about that, and they said, “yeah, this is gonna be a good fit.” That’s a dream come true, working with people who are masters at what they do, working at [Tyner’s] level, you learn so much. I learned more in a day working with McCoy than I learned in a year with my peers. He’s got a wealth of information. There’s a kind of communication and information in their music that’s just not present in anybody else in my generation. It’s not about chops, it’s about experience. I like to work with older people: Junior Mance, Chico Hamilton, McCoy. To me, that’s the real connection to black music, and then there’s their connection to people like Dexter Gordon, Coltrane, Louis Armstrong. That’s what it’s all about.
During your live performances, you have a tendency to really stretch out your voice and show your range, rather than remaining laid back like on the records. Why don’t you belt it out more on wax?
I don’t perform my songs before I record them. I record everything first. That becomes the definitive version and then I perform them. So by the time you saw me do these songs, like “Park Bench People,” I’ve now been performing that for three years, so it’s changed a lot. It’s more of an evolution of the song through performance, really. I think if you listen to a version of Kind of Blue that they play live, they’re very different, they’re faster. I don’t really want to do an album that sounds like a live performance. Most people write songs and they tour those songs to get them ready, and then they go to the studio when they’re ready. But for me, I write the song, and usually the first performance, and the first time the musicians see the music is in the studio. It’s more like a natural progression of the song as a performance.
During your first NYC Jazz club performance this year at the Jazz Standard, a number of audience members were surprised you were wearing a fitted cap, leather jacket and sneakers. Is your wardrobe a conscious decision or more of an afterthought?
It’s definitely conscious. What we’re trying to do is present jazz-based music or music that has a high degree of improvisation, in a new, younger context. I think there’s a whole movement that we’ve been talking about, of people who grew up with hip-hop; it’s a natural language for them. And there’s a younger audience that wants this new music, but they don’t necessarily want to call it jazz and I don’t want to call it jazz, which is a reason I don’t usually play jazz clubs. I just think anything that would limit our audience, and we’re trying to avoid that. When I sing with McCoy, I’m wearing a suit and we’re all looking clean, but if I want to send my music for people who are 35 and under, that’s not how they dress. Cats want to come, they wear a fitted and some Jordans or whatever, so I think it’s about making them comfortable, too, creating a space for the audience to feel like “Ok, this is something I can bring my lady to.”
You once stated of your new single, “Trouble,” it’s like your Marvin Gaye-type song, but there’s also that D’Angelo “Brown Sugar” vibe. Are you going in that Soulquarian direction with the new album?
Yes and no. Obviously Pino Pallidino is on the album, so that’s the reference – and Russ Elevado did a lot of the tracking for the record too. But beyond that, I’m more interested in the group interplay and the rhythmic things that they did, based on J Dilla’s stuff, like on Voodoo. I’m not so much interesting in the song form or the kind of writing style, but the way that they played, I’m interested in that. The instrumental part of it; bringing hip-hop, R&B and doing complex harmonic things on top of that. That’s why I look to a Marvin Gaye, an Al Green, a Donny Hathaway, Quincy Jones, who are more harmonically driven in their writing. I would hesitate to say, yes, it’s the Soulquarian thing, because to me, that happened a long time ago. I definitely wouldn’t want to recreate that, but I think there was a lot of valid musical advancements that haven’t really been explore, to be honest. I lot of the groups and artists that I thought was going to be around for a long time aren’t doing music anymore.
Expounding on that point a little more, we’re witnessing a transformation of jazz with the infusion of multiple contemporary genres. Do you see yourself as a leader in this movement?
I just think it’s in the air. Now, it’s like Ben Williams, or myself, or [Robert] Glasper, we love hip-hop, it’s what we grew up on and it’s like a natural expression, it’s just a musical expression for us. It’s not a big statement. It’s like an extension of what The Roots did, in my opinion. I don’t know if we’re all thinking about it so much. I think it’s just natural for us to do. I think we’ve reached the point where now younger people have to say what they’re about. The internet and downloading, it kind of just changed the whole game, so all you have left to sing is this is who I am, whatever that is. I think there’s something in the air that’s moving towards it. Instrumentalists like Takuya Kuroda, Corey King or Ben Williams, the younger generation of New York based jazz musicians, are collaborating more, using hip-hop or soul or R&B changes. There’s a lot of overlapping circles.
Your forthcoming CD No Beginning No End includes some pretty heavy musicians like Glasper, Saul Williams, Amp Fiddler, etc. What’s your impression of it at this point?
It’s pretty dope, man. We’re excited about it. Me and Takuya have been working on just the arrangements for months. I’ve done it session by session, so we’ve had a chance to listen to the music and really orchestrate it. I think it’s really rare to have so much time to work on a record so by the time it’s done, I think all the time and expertise that we were able to bring will really show. Working with that level of people – Chris Dave and Glasper, cats from the U.K. – there’s a lot of attention to detail, which is what I wanted to do. A lot people just feel like jazz things are just thrown together and you just have a session, but this is really an album; carefully crafted, well thought out, every step, every song, arrangement. It’s a different side of me and I’m writing in a different direction, but it’s definitely gonna be the most cohesive statement of my musical concept. I don’t think of it as one genre; it’s all mixed together – R&B and jazz.
This has all the makings of possible crossover exposure. Would you be open to becoming a so-called “mainstream” artist?
If it happened naturally, if it was a natural progression, if the music was embraced. I’m not sitting down, writing and producing trying to get to that. I don’t think D’Angelo was either, per se. I think he was just making music and it caught on. At the time, Brown Sugar sounded totally different from all the other male R&B stuff. And Voodoo again. I’m not shooting for that, but I wouldn’t say no to it. Whenever you try to plan where music is going to go, that’s a problem.
Although the album is still being finished, have you given any thought of what type of project you might do after the No Beginning No End phase is completed?
I’ve planned for the next three albums, at this point. Obviously it changes, but I have a pretty clear idea of a seven album arc from The Dreamer to that record of what I want to do. The music tells you what it wants. I think it’s like once you’ve fully gone into something like I did with The Dreamer or Blackmagic or For All We Know, those are just statements of a certain style and there’s nothing else I can do with that style, so you have to move on to the next one. So once I do this, there’ll be nothing else left of that. So I know there certain things I want to do. One of the main projects is gonna be a Coltrane project, for sure. It’s more like things that I’ve worked on through the years. Maybe a certain kind of song that was maybe more singer/songwriter but it didn’t fit on anything, so I put it to the side. Maybe that concept will be a whole album. The Coltrane stuff will be a whole album, maybe like a bluesy thing, maybe that will be a whole album.
Interview by Matthew Allen