José James – Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday
(Blue Note 00600406536204. CD Review by Peter Jones)
With a string of genre-busting albums behind him, collaborations with everyone from Nicola Conte to Basement Jaxx, and a stellar performance at last year’s Love Supreme Festival, it seems José James can do no wrong. He has embraced hip-hop, rock and jazz. On early, groundbreaking tracks like Park Bench People (from his debut album The Dreamer), he staked out a piece of Gil Scott-Heron’s territory. Last year’s While You Were Sleeping featured both electric and acoustic rock guitar, reflecting his youthful passion for bands like Nirvana.
The velvet-voiced singer from Minneapolis, now reportedly resident in London, has been making a lot of new friends here, and with good reason: he doesn’t go in for the tiresome histrionics witnessed on talent show TV; his delivery is gentle and cool, dreamy and ecstatic, as if transfixed by the vision in his head. The result is a compelling intimacy of style that gives the impression that he’s singing just for you. His recordings have been among the most interesting and original in recent vocal jazz.
James is not afraid to take risks, and with this new tribute to Billie Holiday, he sets himself a target: the tunes are so well known and have been so often covered that he can now be judged alongside the greatest singers in jazz – including Billie herself. How well he pulls it off is a matter for debate.
He’s kept it stripped-down and simple, with just a piano trio led by Jason Moran, with John Pattitucci on bass and Eric Harland on drums. So far, so good. Now comes the problem: José is a hipster. It isn’t that he lacks passion, but his usual mode of expression is restrained and inward, casual, as if he can’t quite be bothered. This becomes apparent on songs like What a Little Moonlight Can Do. When played uptempo like this, the song’s vocal delivery needs to be snappier, otherwise the singer risks trailing in the band’s wake. Likewise on Fine and Mellow (cue some gender-reassigned lyrics), he doesn’t seem convincingly engaged. On Body and Soul, featuring some beautiful soloing from Moran, the last note José hits would have benefitted from the attention of producer Don Was.
But on the sixth track, a passionate version of Tenderly, José breaks free of his cool and hits his style. All of a sudden he’s in focus. The whole album should have been like this. And it continues: Lover Man leans on a simple bluesy bass-line from Pattitucci. James’s yearning vocal bursts out angrily on the line ‘No one’s here to love me’, as if raging at his lonely fate. God Bless the Child is another slow blues, Moran switching to Fender Rhodes for the first time, with a lovely variation in dynamic and a drawn-out ritardando ending.
But the album’s closer Strange Fruit is the No.1 reason to listen to this album, for all its minor faults. Because no one can sing this tune unless they mean it. And José James does mean it, declaiming Abel Meeropol’s lyric a capella, backed only by a dark country church drone of weary voices and a plain handclap. Not merely spine-chilling, but one of the best things he’s ever done.