(Ronnie Scott’s, 19th May 2015. Review by Peter Jones)
An audience on its feet and cheering is not the most common sight at Ronnie Scott’s, however appreciative they may be. But such was José James’s warmth and charisma, his musicianship and sheer spontaneity, no other reaction made sense. He had just played God Bless The Child with a barnstorming energy you would never have suspected from Mr Cool, backed by a terrific trio of Leo Genevese (keys), Solomon Dorsey (double bass and vocals) and Nate Smith (drums).
It was a performance that just kept on getting better, offering further proof that James is now the most innovative and creative male jazz singer on the scene. When he improvises, it isn’t the dooby-dooby-doo scat we’re familiar with, but a style derived from DJing and digital editing technology: he grabs fragments – words and phrases – from the tune and recycles them, throwing them up in the air and repeating them in a stuttered and chopped-up manner.
This featured throughout, but most notably in an extended coda to Body and Soul, which opened the second set. James improvises in other ways too, telling the band at the start of the set that they were going to do Lover Man, then changing his mind when they were already playing the intro. It’s a world away from the infinitely rehearsed sleek showbiz approach we have come to expect from many more seasoned American performers: James gets excited by some idea, and wants to put it into practice straight away. Hence when they finally did play Lover Man, it segued into Bill Withers’ Grandma’s Hands and then Ain’t No Sunshine.
The first set had featured other tunes from his new album Yesterday I Had The Blues, his tribute to Billie Holiday: Good Morning Heartache, Tenderly, Fine and Mellow, and then, strapping on an acoustic guitar, he played a song he wrote with the singer-songwriter Emily King – Come to My Door. Here, the vocal harmony was provided by the excellent Solomon Dorsey, whose solos elsewhere were accompanied by his own scat vocal.
It had been an intimate sort of evening, enlivened by good-natured banter with the audience. James told a long and touching story about his relationship with London, where he was ‘discovered’ while living here in 2006. At one point he was so overcome with emotion that he had to stop talking. In New York they wouldn’t give him the time of day, he said.
The show ended with an encore, his version of Strange Fruit, sung completely a capella. Through the magic of technology he recorded his vocal harmonies and ragged handclaps live, building up a hyponotic, repeated 2-bar backing, then singing the song’s terrible tale of murder and racism in the Deep South. The applause was long and loud, but so powerful was this performance that it left several people in tears.