Vocalist and bandleader José James has done, if not everything, then at least a little of everything. His albums span genres, his smooth, rich baritone working as effortlessly on 2014’s experimental, rock-inflected While You Were Sleeping as it does on his 2010 collection of jazz standards with Jef Neve, For All We Know.
James returns this time with an album commemorating Billie Holiday‘s centennial—Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday, a celebration of some of the singer’s most undeniable performances, with James singing in front of a truly all-star band: Jason Moran (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Eric Harland (drums).
We had the chance to speak with James about recording the album and his connection to Holiday and her legacy. Read on to find out why he thinks Billie is still under-appreciated, even in 2015.
Revive: How did you pick the songs? Obviously, when it comes to Billie Holiday there’s a lot to choose from.
José James: I actually started the whole project some years ago with a live debut at Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. The focus was mainly on my favorite period of Billie Holiday, which was the late-50s Verve recordings, with essentially a small version of the Count Basie band. I love that—to me, that’s the epitome of vocal jazz. It’s my favorite style and era of it. So I really pulled from that repertoire that she was singing, and the way she sang it. It’s sort of this beautiful, not really midpoint, but a period of her career where she really still had her voice. She had that deep wisdom that we’ve come to associate her with. To me, that’s her at the height of her powers.
There were some practical considerations—a lot of her repertoire I just completely avoided, like the “My Man” stuff. The, “I’ll do anything for this dude who’s like, a piece of shit.”
I get it, because she lived it—you know, that was real, it was a part of her story. It’s not a part of my story, thankfully. That whole repertoire has always bothered me in jazz anyway, songs like that from the 40s and 50s.
I feel like, in many ways, Billie Holiday’s still very under-appreciated as an artist. People focus on her voice, and all of the very recognizable vocal things that she does, which are great. But I wanted to, with this project, start the conversation again about her as a radical feminist, as a civil rights activist—taking a stance. And also just [her] being a non-conformist. If you look at the other singers of her time, they were really trying to entertain. They were trying to make people feel good. They were singing fast—and she was singing the blues. She was keeping it super real, and you can feel that to this day. Everything that she sang, she believed in. So I had to pick songs that I felt the same about.
Basically, that was the criteria. I also tried to focus on songs that she wrote, songs that she had a hand in shaping, like “Strange Fruit”; songs that were written for her or songs that she wrote herself, like “Fine and Mellow” or “God Bless The Child.” The other songs—”Body and Soul” is like the standard– I also wanted some songs that I knew I would sound good on, as a producer. It’s been the same nine songs since I debuted it back in 2012.
R: How do you prepare to record songs that, like you said, are just so classic at this point? Does that change the way you approach them?
JJ: Yeah. For better or for worse, I think my approach to jazz is very traditional, in one sense, but is [also] very out of fashion today. It’s about the musicians, and it’s about that magic that happens in the moment. When I sort of step in my jazz world, it’s somewhere between instrumental jazz and vocal jazz. I go by the “Miles Davis school of production and band-leading”, where you pick the best musicians you can, you provide them with a minimum of direction, and you just let the music happen. I’ve seen it work time and time again.
For me, the difference between a musician reading an arrangement on a piece of paper, and them closing their eyes and listening to what’s happening around them and responding to it, is huge. Once I had the band, Jason [Moran] and John [Patitucci] and Eric [Harland]—it’s very exciting to have that trio of just world-class guys—I already knew it was going to be fantastic. I didn’t really tell them anything about it. They didn’t know what they were going to play beforehand. They knew it was a Billie Holiday tribute. I’m sure they assumed it was going to be like another singer date, where we just have a bunch of charts and they write them down and they got paid and kind of moved on. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what I intended.
There used to be a club in new york called Bradley’s—I’ve never been there, it closed in the 80’s—but I used to study with Junior Mance, and he would tell me about Bradley’s. It was a very important place for a generation of jazz musicians in New York. It was really all about pianists there. It was down by Washington Square Park. It was the spot everybody would go to after their gig, or if you didn’t have a gig, you would go to Bradley’s. At like one or two in the morning they would close the bar, and close the spot, and kick out all the customers, and then all the musicians would stay.
They would close the grate so it looked closed from the outside, and they would just play. That’s when the music got serious. You can just imagine, like, night after night—Junior would tell me about leaving there at seven or eight in the morning. And he just played and heard and experienced the who’s who of the New York jazz scene, and it was [all at] that spot. For me, that’s a beautiful story and beautiful reality that’s no longer the case in New York anymore, or anywhere. I told the guys—they were like, “How do you want to do this?” I said, “I want it to be like Bradley’s. I want you to imagine we’re in Bradley’s right now, it’s three in the morning, nobody’s here, and we’re just playing for the love of music.” That was it.
What you hear is like what happened. There’s no real alternate takes or anything. We just played the whole album, straight. We started recording at one and we stopped recording at 4:45.
R: So it’s like almost a live album.
JJ: Absolutely. We’re all in the same room, there’s no overdubs or anything like that. It’s like, that’s it. First of all, that’s a very difficult thing to do. It only works with amazing musicians, and great songs, and great knowledge of music. Second of all, it’s a very honest, emotional performance. Chico Hamilton told me, “The first take is important in jazz because that’s where the real emotion is.” That’s your true response to what’s happening, and everything else after that, your brain is involved because you have something to reference.
That, to me, was my real tribute to Billie. What I want to show with this project is not what a great jazz artist Billie Holiday is, because everybody knows that. It’s more how she influenced me, as a singer and bandleader and composer.
R: Had you worked with any of the guys before?
R: How did you get connected to them?
JJ: I hadn’t even met any of them before. I met Jason years ago, and we had kept in touch because he had been trying to hook me into the Fats Waller project.
He’d been doing that for so many years—I think I was touring No Beginning No End, and he was hitting me up for live dates. I couldn’t make them and it was killing me. It became like a joke between us. We never could sync up our schedules. He and I had always talked about doing something, and this was the first time that it had clicked.
It was a very magical experience—it was just fantastic.
R: Your last album was kind of experimental, and this is way back on the jazz standard end of the spectrum. What was the transition like? Were you touring with the material from last year’s album before you recorded this?
JJ: All my stuff is pretty seamless—like now, while I’m touring [Yesterday I Sang The Blues], today I’m going to go in the studio, I’m writing my next one. For me it’s continual. I’m pretty much always planning two albums ahead. I’ve sort of realized there’s a definite pattern to my output at this point: there’s an album that everybody sort of loves, that’s a real balance between the old and new, like The Dreamer or No Beginning No End, like a blend of jazz and hip-hop, or r&b and soul and hip-hop. Then there’s a more experimental album that follows that, which is like Black Magic and While You Were Sleeping. Then there’s a return to jazz, For All We Know and Yesterday I Sang The Blues. It wasn’t like a planned thing, I just kind of realized it when I made a list of my albums. Like, oh wow, this is exactly what I did before.
I think it makes sense for me—I get really bored, really easily. The missing piece, for people who aren’t musicians, is how long the process is. I tell people, when they’re like, “Why didn’t you do more like No Beginning No End,” more soul stuff, well that was like a three or four year process. Writing it, assembling it, all the sessions with Pino in London before there was even an album, writing the album, producing the album, touring the album for two years.
Like, if you eat pizza every single single day for four years…
R: And then you listen to [the album] in an hour.
JJ: Exactly. Even the Billie project, I’ve been working on it since 2011. And really, I’ve been working on it since I was in high school, you know what I mean? Studying her stuff. I like to keep it fresh for myself, and I’ve sort of given up caring about expectations. This is just what’s honest—I feel like Billie, especially with what’s happening right now with police brutality and Ferguson, a song like “Strange Fruit”—that’s what I should be singing right now. I don’t really want to sing love songs right now. There are love songs on the album, but Billie Holiday is not like your typical…there’s thorns in that rose.
R: I was going to ask about Strange Fruit, it’s the last song on the album, and you did it a capella right?
JJ: To do “Strange Fruit,” that’s the essence of Billie Holiday. That really defined her. I think it’s still underappreciated what a radical stance that was at the time. I keep telling people, it’s like Beyonce doing a song about Ferguson right now. She was the highest paid black entertainer in the world at the time.
She ruined her career, in a way. It made her career, but she was put on the FBI’s most wanted list. The CIA hunted her down. Because of that song. If she would have played along, and not done that song, she probably would have lived as long as Frank Sinatra. It’s pretty deep. I wanted to really strip that song down and make it feel more raw, and bring it back even further than the 40s or the 30s or the 20s. Let’s take this all the way back to the fields, and to what it’s about. To slavery. I’m not a musicologist but, in my own way, I wanted to invoke that. I did it live with a loop station, and people kind of felt it. I wanted it to feel haunting and terrible because that’s what it is.
R: You mentioned you were singing Billie Holiday in high school—what was the first Billie song that you learned?
JJ: I really liked “I Cover the Waterfront,” back then, which is not an appropriate song for a teenager [laughs]. I was a pretty weird kid—I liked that as much as I liked De La Soul. People were like…they didn’t get me then, they don’t get me now. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now.
R: If you came across someone who had never heard Billie Holiday, what five songs would you force them to listen to?
JJ: Definitely “God Bless the Child.” That’s kind of her hit, the song that everybody can relate to. “Strange Fruit.” If I had to sum up Billie Holiday in two songs, it would be those two. Her version of “Autumn in New York” is like, the ultimate one. To me, it sums up what a New York singer is. I think she, more than anybody, made me want to move to New York and experience the sophistication and the complexity of the city, way before hip-hop. I would say those three songs, really—that’s my core Billie Holiday stuff.
I actually just put together a compilation of her stuff, which came out in Japan. I think it’s going to come out in Europe, too. The States is always like…
R: The final frontier.
JJ: Yeah, sadly.
R: Who are you listening to right now?
JJ: The new Drake, a lot.
R: What do you think?
JJ: How I always feel about Drake—I love half of it, hate the other half of it. I’m listening to a lot of Drake, and a lot of Frank Sinatra just because it’s his centennial also. I’m going to be doing some tributes to him this year. I love that Beck album. It was funny to me because my two favorite albums of the year were definitely the Beyonce album and the Beck album. I thought both of them were just incredible—I’ve been talking about that Beck album since it dropped. Got it on vinyl—got it in L.A. before I went to Europe. I carried it with me for like two weeks.
That’s kind of it because I’m in the studio a lot. When I start working on a new album, I kind of stop listening to a lot of outside stuff just so I can kind of focus, so I don’t end up with, like, a Sam Smith song on my album.
R: What’s the vibe of the stuff you’re working on in the studio?
JJ: I’m working with a producer, Scott Jacoby, who co-wrote “Trouble” off No Beginning No End. Without giving away too much, it’s a definite pop/r&b vibe, pretty strong melodies, and definitely about songs.
R: Do you know what musicians you’re going to try to enlist?
JJ: Probably zero. I’m embracing a very produced album this time. Like, I did everything I wanted to with a live band with r&b stuff on No Beginning, so like I don’t want to make a No Beginning No End II, you know? I want to make something totally different.
At this point, people should just expect that I do something totally different.
R: What else is coming up?
JJ: I’m going to be doing a lot of touring of the Billie stuff with a really great band. Playing a lot more shows in the U.S., which is new for me. I have a run at the Blue Note this fall with Jason Moran and Eric [Harland] and Reuben Rodgers, which is going to be amazing. Also a couple of tributes to Frank Sinatra, including one at the Hollywood Bowl.
Just trying to be a good dad, too. My daughter’s almost 2. Her name’s Anaïs.