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Interview with José James

October 24 2012

The first track on José James' 2008 solo debut, Dreamer, pulls a neat trick of lineage—it's a cover of Freestyle Fellowship's 1993 hip-hop track "Park Bench People," which itself rode on a sample of Freddie Hubbard's 1970 recording "Red Clay." James is an artist at the forefront of soul jazz's post-hip-hop movement, one of a generation of artists who’ve reverse-engineered the classic bop and R&B sources of their favorite samples and dug their way back down to the foundations to build new, parallel structures. By 2010, James' warm, deeply soulful voice had emerged as one that was equally at home murmuring '30s standards in a piano duet (the Jef Neve teamup For All We Know) and streamlining dubstep covers and Flying Lotus collaborations into a modern style reminiscent of the Soulquarians collective (Blackmagic). The new EP It's All Over Your Body is James' first release for Blue Note and a lead-in to his upcoming album, No Beginning No End. And from the liquid-smooth title track and deeply romantic cuts like "Trouble" and "Come to My Door," it's clear he's developed into a singer who can get away with not having to worry what genre he's supposed to fit—James’ voice is so rich and resonant that he seems capable of working in any context that calls for soulfulness. In this brief Q&A, we discuss the intersections between styles, and the musicians who help make that growth possible.

When did you start really noticing the lineage between hip-hop, jazz and R&B, and how did you work your way through the genres?
I think it was just so prevalent in all the '90s hip-hop production that I listened to in high school. De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Digable Planets, Rakim…the samples of soul and jazz were literally embedded in the tracks. I think it was just subconsciously always there. And then on this particular project where I met Leon Ware, in L.A., he talked about coming from jazz, and how Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke and Al Green and all those other soul singers came from jazz and the church, and found ways to combine it into the music of today and to find their own voice. It was really inspirational, and [Ware] in particular gave me the permission to take that step that I'd been wanting to make.

How did your own vocal style develop, and what sort of influences did you have?
Well, my favorite album of all time, of any kind of music, is Marvin Gaye's I Want You. I've been studying that album for at least the last ten, fifteen years. So I really wanted to do something like that, really sensual, a little more sexy, funky, soulful, whatever you want to call it. And I also started working with [bassist] Pino Palladino when I lived in London. And so the sound of the album naturally went into that more funky, souful, Erykah Badu/D'Angelo place just because of the sound of his bass and the way that he plays. It was a real blessing to work with him…I wouldn't have been able to make this album without him.

How was your band assembled? Did you have any specific artists you wanted to juxtapose with each other to achieve a certain sound?
On "It's All Over Your Body," that's the first time Chris Dave, Robert Glasper, and Pino Palladino have ever played together. They'd all played together separately, but they'd been trying to get together as a trio for years. And the stars aligned on my session, so I feel really privileged to have been there, to have sung with them, to have witnessed that, because I think that's probably the best trio in music right now. Just fantastic, man. I basically lived with the music for a long time, and took about two years to do the entire album, and I just tracked when the music was ready and when the guys were ready. So I had that group with Pino, Chris Dave and Glasper. I had a group in London with Pino, Matt Windsor on keys and my longtime permanent drummer Richard Spaven. I also tracked with Nick Smith on drums, Kris Bowers on piano, who's also in my permanent band, and Solomon Dorsey on bass. It was getting the right guys at the right time—there are 20 musicians on the album, and they're all really handpicked to be on the right track at the right moment.

What's your experience like performing in America compared to Europe? Is there a different vibe between the scenes?
Absolutely. I think outside of L.A. in terms of production and the electronic music scene, I think London has been ahead of the curve for a long time. You don't necessarily think of electronic music when you think of jazz, but in terms of a music scene and excitement where young people are at, I feel like there's more excitement in Europe for discovering new music. I'd go over to London and hear about artists like James Blake, who were performing to 50 people, and within like four months that sound and that style will be absorbed by the R&B and pop music here. I feel really lucky to have lived in London when dubstep was sort of just becoming popular over there—this was three years ago—and it felt really exciting. I've been fortunate, touring there for the last five years or so…you feel like part of a movement. I think in the U.S. things just take longer, I think people are a little more skeptical, and we also originate a lot of talent, so especially in New York and L.A., you've seen it all… it takes so much to get somebody to listen to a new artist here.

How would you like to challenge yourself in the future, either through trying new things or refining what you're currently doing?
There's two main ways I want to challenge myself as an artist—basically letting go of limitations. For anybody, regardless of your discipline, it's really refreshing to, every now and then, step back from your plan or whatever you think you do best, and try something totally different. That's why every year or so I try something new. Maybe it's working with Flying Lotus, maybe it's working with McCoy Tyner, or singing with an orchestra, which I'm going to do next year. You should always be challenging yourself, that's how the greats got better—Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, they always pushed themselves, regardless of what we know them for. Abbey Lincoln used to paint a lot and write poetry, and everyone thinks, "she's a jazz singer, why does she do that?" But she always wanted to understand the creative process. I think it's important to remember that it is a process and that not everything has to be sold. Some things you make for yourself. I'd really like to get into production more, a lot more layering of sounds. I think that's where jazz and R&B haven't really caught up to where indie rock is, for example—listening to Radiohead or listening to Grizzly Bear, there's so many layers of production blended so well, I think that'd be really interesting in a jazz or soul context. Also collaboration: There's definitely some artists I'd like to work with—Corinne Bailey Rae, Cat Power, artists who aren't necessarily jazz-based but are really individual in their voices, and I think we could do something really interesting together.