JOSÉ JAMES / “The Dreamer”
José James sings like I sing in my fantasies when I imagine I’m the most elegantly cool jazz singer of them all (cooler even than Nat ‘The King’ himself) holding down the bandstand with grace and ease, bowtie slightly loosened because even though I’m the very definition of sartorial splendor in my ink-black dinner jacket and crisp white dress shirt, I’m no uptight square either. The audience hangs on my every syllable, of course.
Judging from his publicity photos, José James doesn’t look the part, but he definitely has the voice: a smoky, agile baritone that seems capable of anything its owner desires. James also writes music, damn good music too. Music with fascinating, circular melodies and engaging, understated lyrics that have the classic vibe of songs much older. Here’s how James begins this week’s feature selection and the title track of his new album, The Dreamer:
I saw the dreamer raise his hand
Into a world of possibilities
I saw the dreamer raise his hand
Into a sky of light and love
I saw the dreamer raise his hand
Into a day of tomorrow
I saw the dreamer raise his hand…
It’s a ghostly tribute/eulogy to MLK and although I like the words a lot, I love the way James sings them. This dude’s voice and phrasing sound like a warm, tight hug feels; he doesn’t so much blow you away as invite you in. If you’re not really paying attention, his gifts could underwhelm you, if not slide right by altogether. Don’t let that happen. I know it’s a hyperspeed, 24 hour a day, shock and awe world out there, but sometimes the best things are quiet, not loud; muted, not bold; persistent, but not necessarily obvious.
The other thing I like about James’ debut album is how much it exists in the now, in 2008. Generally speaking, jazz ain’t what it used to be. Despite that, the last thing we need is some talented individual mishandling his or her own talent by imitating – no matter how accurate technically – the greats of the past. James knows that. And so although his band uses acoustic instruments almost exclusively and although he sings in a warm, hazy baritone straight out of jazz’s long-ago heyday, the twenty-something year old James also has a contemporary swagger, a youthful sharpness. He’s got a young person’s attitude but a much older person’s musical taste.
And actually, that’s not even true. James’ album includes three covers (yes, he wrote seven of the ten songs…and they’re all very good), but only one—Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Spirits Up Above”—dates back to the sixties. The other two—Bill Lee’s lovely jazz ballad “Nola” from the She’s Gotta Have It Soundtrack and “Park Bench People” from the Los Angeles avant-garde hip-hop crew Freestyle Fellowship—are of much more recent vintage. James’ modernity is also evident in the infrequent (but much appreciated) sprays of drum ‘n bass-style drumming that shows up on tunes like “Nola,” “Red,” and most notably on the album-closer “Love.”
If you like Andy Bey and Terry Callier, or if you like the ballads of Gil Scott-Heron, or the jazz sides of Nat ‘King’ Cole, or any of the other honey-voiced male vocalists of classic jazz, you have got to get your hands on this album. It’s an import (James’ label, Brownswood, is run by Gilles Peterson, the legendary British DJ) so it’s expensive, but it’s worth every nickel you’ll spend. Locate your credit card and click the album link. You won’t regret it.
—Mtume ya Salaam
The Will To Be Beautiful
The strength of fragile beauty. Hopeless romantics facing down the firing squads of commercialism. Can music feed the hungry, heal the wounded, provide shelter in life’s storms, give faith when all hope is crushed beneath the boot heel of oppressive power?
Can music really be enough when we need so much?
If it can’t, it ain’t real music.
Life without music? No way!
Because music is the sign of life, the sound of organized motion, which is all that life is. Hip music helps us organize ourselves.
Music really does make us different. Moves us. Literally. Energizes and motivates our molecular structure. Moves us.
A song is “the” sign, the “sound” of a soul alive.
At his hippest, song sounder José James causes us to also sing, to sing along, to believe we can sing, to strongly desire song.
His message is live, sing. Live. Sing.
The best singers make you sing when you hear them. Quietly. Or loudly. Sing when you hear them.
José James is one of the best.
* * *
One day I was listening to the Radio, I was like fourteen, taking the A train, and I never really listened big band stuff. All the Jazz I knew was very confusing, I didn’t understand it. And I heard this very powerful song, I got very excited. It was so much different from the hip-hop of the 90’s that I was use to. And I really liked this thing. It made me very happy. And then I heard Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, so I bought those 3 people. And I just listened to it over and over, for like a summer. And I said, “Whoa, I really like this music, it‘s interesting.” But I didn’t think I wanted to do Jazz. I just liked to listen to it. Then, I just bought more and more album of everything, but a lot of jazz stuff, like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and I just sort of work my way through Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Wes Montgomery, till I got to John Coltrane, and when I heard that song “Equinox,” I felt very passionate about it. And I was trying to find singers who are like sort of complementing the instrumentals too, like Lester Young and Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker. But when I heard John Coltrane, I couldn’t find any singer who could sing the same stuff. You have Betty Carter but she wasn’t as avant-garde. So I felt like there was something missing, and I couldn’t find any recording like central park west, so I started writing lyrics to it, because I started singing in high school a little bit. It was a just for fun, not professionally, but then I started showing that to the people and they were very impressed. So I started performing really at seventeen and became very serious about jazz and John Coltrane, I would do “Equinox,” I would do “Mingus” just stuff like that. But also “Blackeyesusan,” “Summertime.” So that’s how I started it.
* * *
What first drew my ear was a single of Trane’s “Equinox.” (It’s in the jukebox.)
“When I heard ‘Equinox’ I was transported… I started writing lyrics… I must have heard that tune 2000 times!”
Who was that? I had to know because immediately I wanted to hear more, hear if he was doing more like that. Did he have a recording? Was more available?
The music was hip. The sounds bespoke sensitivity, and experience, and wounds that had been healed. Both disaster and recovery. Innocents can’t sing like that. Besides what was he doing singing Trane? You have to know something to get to that. For sure. I was impressed. And wanted, hoped to be more impressed. Somehow I was sure this was not a one hit wonder, a fluke, a tossed coin landing on its edge.
Before the album came out I heard and watched a video of a live concert at Paradiso in Amsterdam. (Two cuts from that concert are in the jukebox: “Moanin’ “ and “The Dreamer.”)
I said, yeah. Another voice had arrived. Reinforcements had been sent.
Who was this cat? Repping New York but giving big ups to London—where he was first feted and recorded and broadcasted and pushed onto the international scene.
James was also working with the Japanese. Quickly I sensed: José is a world citizen. I diggith that to the max. He obeys the human spirit, goes beyond the self, beyond the boundaries, identifies with all things beautiful.
I knew it from his selections of tunes: the ones he covered, the ones he wrote. The vamps he used as springboards for improvisations. The chances he took each time he sung, swung. A way of life at odds with the cold calculation of playing the odds. A way of life among those who go for it. “It” being: striving to create fresh beauty with every breath.
This man is a professional dreamer. Dreaming is how he makes his living. Well, actually singing his dreams, singing our dreams, is how he lives. James sings dreams.
* * *
José’s songs are for someone, partisan, in support of the strivers, the strugglers, the misunderstood, thus without sounding like a politician James is able to stake out a strong position. The man is serious as a lyricist, probably partially due to coming of age via hip-hop.
…when I was in high school, I totally idolized the dude From Digable Planets, Butterfly. He was like my idol when I was a kid, the way A Tribe Called Quest. Actually, I really wanted to be MC, but didn’t think I have like a singular speaking voice. Because it’s not about singing. And every rapper I really like, like Andre 3000, Snoop Biggie, 2 Pac, or Q-tip, all these people have this voice that you really love to hear. And I tried some stuff but I didn’t really like my voice. Before it was very about a singular voice. Now anybody raps you know. Now, it doesn’t really matter if you have a cool voice or not. So I just decided that well I can write but I don’t have this voice, I think I could rap but I don’t have the cool voice. So I said fuck it you know. But my voice change, I have this deeper voice, so I tried jazz instead.
“Park Bench People” is particularly effective as a statement of support for the homeless on the one hand and as a swinging shout out of resistance. There are numerous versions of this song available. I particularly like this live recording with Soil & Pimp Sessions, the Japanese club jazz band (it’s also in the jukebox). And then there is a new video shot by Josh Rothstein in New York at a shelter. There are some hearty long shots of homeless men pirouetting, twirling and swaying, dancing to the music. Go here and see how uplifting song can be.
* * *
I suppose I should write his biography. (Born in Minneapolis—half Irish, half Panamanian, Brooklyn-based.) Drop another quote or two. But why cheapen the beauty of his song with mere facts of life? I prefer to do as he does. I prefer to try to inspire you to song. (If you don’t feel ready to sing your own song, at least, perhaps, maybe, you will sing along with José, and as you step off into your future you will insert a little of that hip dip into your stride while moving through the balance of your days on earth.)
Bop until you drop. We can get to the factoids later and if we don’t, so what? What worth is there in facts without spirit, life without song? None.
Although survival is clearly a sine qua non, if we can not make ourselves and the world we inhabit better and/or more beautiful, than our life is not worth living.
Regardless of the meagerness of a particular moment (and five hundred years of chattel slavery was a particularly tough moment of meagerness), regardless, to the hip, even enslavement is educational. We have learned that we are stronger than death, more beautiful than evil.
To be hip is to counter bullshit with beauty.
To turn scars into tattoos. Turn dirt into earth-toned dyes used to paint the body and decorate all the spaces and places where we dwell.
That is the purpose of improvisation. To live in the moment. To take whatever is at hand and use it to uplift and beautify life. To always and always leave this world better and more beautiful than when we first encountered it.
Listening to José James encourages me to believe in beauty, to have faith in fellow humans, to smile, and to sing.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, May 18th, 2008 at 11:57 pm and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
4 Responses to “JOSÉ JAMES / “The Dreamer””
Leave a Reply
| top |