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Singer José James does ‘the Minnesota thing’ and makes music his way

It might one day be said that singer José James’ star in the U.S. officially rose in September 2012.

Born and raised in Minneapolis, José James is already huge in Europe and Japan but hasn’t yet drawn the attention he deserves at home.
Photo by John Whiting

It might one day be said that singer José James’ star in the U.S. officially rose in September 2012. His new song, “Trouble,” was an iTunes single of the week. His new EP, “It’s All Over Your Body,” was launched, a preview to his forthcoming album on the iconic Blue Note label, to which he was signed earlier this month. (“No Beginning No End” is due out Jan. 22.) He made his debut at the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival, the longest-running jazz fest in the world. Two days later, he opened for the influential pianist Robert Glasper at the iTunes Festival in London.

Born and raised in Minneapolis, James is already huge in Europe and Japan but hasn’t yet drawn the attention he deserves at home. That’s changing as you read this. In the words of one seasoned Monterey observer, “He’s going to be somethin’.” His music blends jazz with hip-hop, funk, R&B, soul, and whatever else interests him. Here’s an example recorded in late 2011 of his unique and compelling approach to the R&B standard “Save Your Love for Me,” made famous by Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderly in the early 1960s. And here’s a version of “Trouble,” his iTunes single.

We spoke with James in Monterey shortly before his 9:30 p.m. set on Sept. 21, the festival’s first night. Getting the interview took a bit of work, due to James’ crazy schedule – most recently in Tokyo, he arrived in Monterey on Friday, sang his heart out, and left for London on a 6 a.m. flight Saturday – but persistence and lurking paid off. We hung around backstage for half an hour, watching his band members arrive, and suddenly there he was. We followed him into a small, bare room and settled in.

MinnPost: Congratulations on your week. The single, the EP, Blue Note, everything.

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José James: Thank you. It’s all coming together, and it feels so great. I’ve been working on the album for two years, independently.

MP: Did Blue Note take it as is, or are they going to mess with it?

JJ: As is. They loved it, it’s done, we mastered it together. The engineer, Tom Coyne, made some of my favorite albums – “Adele 21,” [D’Angelo’s] “Voodoo,” [Erykah Badu’s] “Mama’s Gun,” [Low End’s] “Theory” – tons of great hip-hop and soul. He’s really good.

MP: Did [Blue Note president] Don Was get involved?

JJ: On the business end. He protected my creative freedom. This is the first time since “The Dreamer” [James’s 2008 debut album on the London label Brownswood] that I’ve been able to do what I want and actually be supported.

MP: The last time I saw you was in Minneapolis in June 2010, when you played the Dakota with Belgian pianist Jef Neve. You were on tour for your third CD, “For All We Know,” an album of jazz standards that had just come out on Verve and would go on to win awards. Now you’re saying you don’t want to be considered a jazz singer anymore. What happened?

JJ: If I could do jazz the way I wanted to, I would, but I just can’t. I can’t do it with the freedom I want or the audience development I want. 

Jose James
Photo by John Whiting
“If I could do jazz the way I wanted to, I would, but I just can’t.”

MP: Do you feel the definition of jazz is too strict for you?

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JJ: I think it’s the industry. Yeah. What happened with the album on Verve was that they loved it, it came out, and critics in the U.S. hated it. It didn’t do that well. So immediately they wanted me to do a pop album, pure pop. Verve is just a pop label now.

[There’s a knock on the door and Don Was walks in. During a brief conversation, James asks if he wants to add something to the interview. Was turns and says, “I think you’re in the right room talking to the right man at the right time, and keep going.” He exits.] 

MP: So that’s the guy.

JJ: That’s all the difference in the world, right there. You can feel it. He’s an artist with a real love of music. … Just to finish on the Verve thing, I was really excited at first. We were talking about doing a Coltrane thing, but they immediately cooled on any kind of jazz stuff and wanted me to be really pop-pop.

MP: How did “For All We Know” do in Europe?

JJ: Basically, my second album on Brownswood, “Blackmagic” [2010], got pushed back, and the Verve album already had a release date, so they ended up coming out three months apart and sort of canceled each other. It was frustrating, but ultimately it led me to make my own thing. When my option [with Verve] was up for renewal, we both decided it wasn’t a good fit. So it was, you know, perfect timing.

MP: How did it happen that you got together with Blue Note?

JJ: I started working with Hindi Zahra, a Moroccan singer who’s on Blue Note France. The first session [for the new album] I did was with her, in Paris, and she brought her A&R guy, who was really excited to hear that I was free. He wanted to sign me to Blue Note France, and then they started talking with Blue Note US. My current manager, David Passick, managed Don Was in the Was Not Was days, so they’re old friends. Then I started working with [Blue Note artist] Robert Glasper, too. So it all came together organically, and I knew Blue Note was going to be the right home for the new album. Because it’s not necessarily a jazz album, but it’s not pure R&B, either. It’s very musical, for lack of a better word. It’s still with jazz musicians, and it’s all acoustic.

MP: Are you still improvising, or is it all composed?

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JJ: It’s all composed, but the way we wrote some of it is very jazz, the way we recorded a lot of it – one take, all together – is very jazz.

MP: Will you stretch it a bit in live performance?

JJ: Yeah, we will tonight. We won’t at the iTunes festival; that’s more of a showcase.

MP: Some people think jazz is a little box with only a few things in it, when there’s room for almost anything. Glasper is saying, “This is what I’m doing, you can call it what you want.” There’s this venerable name – jazz – that no one knows what to do with anymore, and it’s just music.

JJ: Absolutely. I’m happy to be here [at the Monterey Jazz Festival] to present what I do. This is cool.

MP: This is an imaginative festival. But you’re probably more on the edge than a lot of the artists here.

JJ: I feel like Europe is way more advanced. They’re way more open to the definition of jazz. More cool. They’re like, “You want to do that? Awesome. You want to work with a rapper? Awesome.” They’re not, “Aah, it’s not real jazz.”

MP: American jazz audiences are still a little suspicious if someone brings in a DJ. 

JJ: But if it’s good … Like Erik Truffaz. I love him. A lot of people here don’t know him. He’s a trumpet player on Blue Note France, and he’s fantastic. 

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MP: You were living in London for a while. Are you back in the states?

JJ: Yeah, in Brooklyn.

MP: Traveling most of the time?

JJ: All of the time. 

MP: Is there anything you want to say to Denny Malmberg? [Malmberg was James’ music teacher at South High in Minneapolis.]

JJ: Just thank you. For everything. For so much. 

MP: Any message for your fans back home? 

JJ: I hope they can be proud there’s another musical voice out there. I feel that’s the Minnesota thing – Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Prince, Morris Day, The Bad Plus and Dave King, those very individual people who made their mark. I’m going to try to do that with my thing, too.

MP: There’s still live music at Fireside Pizza in Richfield, where you used to sing on Monday nights with Denny. Now Charmin Michelle sings with Denny two nights a week. 

JJ: That was the biggest compliment to me, that Charmin took over the gig. I’ve always looked up to her.

MP: Do you think you’ll come through Minneapolis sometime soon?

JJ: Definitely. Probably this spring.

MP: You’ve worked with McCoy Tyner, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with Robert Glasper, with DJs, rappers, electronica musicians, a Moroccan singer … Who do you want to work with that hasn’t happened yet? 

JJ: Cat Power. I’m going to see her next month in New York. I think she’s so great. She reminds me of Billie Holiday.