Is José James a jazz singer or a soul singer? Old school or new school? A guardian of tradition or a seeker of thrills?
Yes, yes and yes.
This 35-year-old vocalist, born in Minneapolis and now based in New York, has spent the last decade working to prove those dichotomies false. He's released a string of impressive, slyly audacious albums that mingle cool supper-club singing and fractured hip-hop beats and has performed with artists ranging from the veteran jazz pianist McCoy Tyner to the hipster electronic whiz Flying Lotus.
For his troubles — and there were some troubles — James built an admiring cult of critics, tastemakers and fellow musicians, including the BBC Radio deejay Gilles Peterson, who issued 2008's "The Dreamer" and 2010's "Blackmagic" on his label Brownswood. But this year the singer is primed to reach a wider audience with a new record that, in addition to being his most visible, is also his best.
Released last week by Blue Note, "No Beginning No End" lives up to its title. The music demonstrates the jazz training James received at New York's New School as well as the feel for tone he inherited perhaps from his father, a saxophonist from Panama. (James grew up with his Irish American mother, whom he described as a "total hippie into folk and all that protest stuff.") But it's equally informed by his experience singing in a high school choir and by his travels through the dance clubs of Europe, where he first concentrated on building a fan base after hooking up with Peterson.
There's also D'Angelo. The murky, lived-in sound of "Voodoo," that R&B star's landmark 2000 album, hangs heavily over songs like "It's All Over Your Body" and the title track, in the earthy instrumental textures and the slow-motion rhythms that keep threatening to lag behind but somehow arrive right on time. Pino Palladino, who co-produced James' album and played bass on both it and "Voodoo," described the shared aesthetic as an "implied groove": funk defined by the beats that aren't there.
"José's record has such a strong vibe — it's magnetic," said Jason Bentley, music director at Santa Monica's KCRW-FM (89.9). On Thursday the public radio station was planning to air a set by James on its influential "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program, and it's presenting his show March 12 at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice. "You don't have to be an old jazz head to get it. When you hear him, you're just a fan."
In an interview at the Capitol Records building the day after a recent gig at UCLA's Royce Hall, James said his models for "No Beginning No End" were hard-to-classify early-'70s albums by Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway and Laura Nyro with Labelle. "We're quick to say those records are soul, but you listen to Roberta Flack and there's so much in there," said the singer, who was wearing a black leather jacket and a crisp Yankees cap. "I'm fascinated by that mix."
Perfecting the blend on his disc wasn't easy, he admitted, describing long in-studio jam sessions with A-list sidemen like the drummer Chris Dave and the pianist Robert Glasper. "You play for six hours and at hour four something cool starts happening," he said. "You record it all, then go back and say, 'That section — that's the gold.'"
It's an approach out of step with today's record industry, which favors speed and economy, not to mention sure-thing results. "It's much easier to tell a singer, 'Here's the produced track,'" James explained. "Then you don't have to worry about the drummer getting high or missing his flight. And, you know, we're human beings — we might not get it on the first day. That's expensive."
James was especially attentive to cost because he made "No Beginning No End" on his own dime: After a brief stint with Verve "went sour," as he put it, the singer was determined not to allow anyone to tamper with his vision for the new album. "They all panicked when the economy crashed," he said of his experience at the venerable jazz label, which in fact yielded a lovely (if low-key) set of standards called "For All We Know." "It became, 'Let's turn you into a pop star.' But that's not my gift. That's not why I'm here."
He found more understanding at Blue Note, where the veteran producer Don Was signed James (who'd finished "No Beginning No End") shortly after taking over as the company's president in early 2012. Yet even Was acknowledged that he needed a minute to get his head around James' multidimensional sound.
"To be honest, it was a bit of a problem for me," he said with a laugh. "I can't take myself out of the equation." Was, who's worked with the Rolling Stones and Iggy Pop, among many others, recalled watching James play at Zanzibar in Santa Monica. "And I was looking around the crowd, thinking, 'How do you categorize this group of people?' It reminded me of CBGB in the early days, or seeing Pharoah Sanders with the MC5. You're talking about a cocktail no one's tasted before."
Last year Blue Note had success with another slippery release, Glasper's "Black Radio," which has sold more than 75,000 copies — a huge number by contemporary jazz standards. Was said the label plans to roll out "No Beginning No End" in a similar fashion, "covering everything from [urban adult contemporary] radio to little blogs. We'll try to reach everybody." Earlier this month James performed on David Letterman's late-night show, and last week NPR streamed the entire album, which cracked the top 25 on the overall iTunes chart in the days after its release.
"What I dig about José is that he embodies that crossover thing so naturally," Glasper said. "His voice sounds so authentically old school; it's not contrived at all. And yet he's a young dude living in today's society." That's a combination that seems to be gaining traction in an R&B scene ruled at the moment by Frank Ocean and Miguel, once fringe-oriented artists up for multiple Grammy Awards at next month's ceremony.
The idea of a breakthrough excites James, no doubt about it. But at this point in his career he insists he's got his eyes on a different prize. "The people I love — Miles, Coltrane, Billie, Marvin — they made their music according to their path," he said. "It wasn't about a commodity like it is now. I really believe in an artist taking his time to do something." He shrugged. "I'm stubborn."