Pop: José James’s ‘No Beginning No End’

January 20th, 2013

Damon Winter/The New York Times

José James’s path has taken him through Europe, two record labels and a host of musical idioms to arrive at his new album, “No Beginning No End.”

THE singer José James’s cool and confident new album, “No Beginning No End,” to be released by Blue Note next week, sounds like the result of the black-pop continuum, jazz and soul and hip-hop and R&B, slow-cooked for more than 50 years.

It descends from a lot of things. First among them are the great neo-soul records of 2000, D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” and Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun.” It’s got the lagging relationships to the beat on the hip-hop records produced in the ’90s and oughts by J Dilla; some of the ballad rumination in Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack’s records from the early and mid-’70s; the tempos of Sade, the vocal color of Gil Scott-Heron, the phrasing of Billie Holiday.

Its parts don’t have a clinically defined relationship, A + B + C. It’s an evolved compound, and the album sounds evolved in other ways too. It definitely wants to be appreciated by adult women, with songs like “It’s All Over Your Body” and “Come to My Door”: the male soul singer representing sex and trust and ethics, sometimes in duets with calm, female voices — the French-Moroccan Hindi Zahra on “Sword + and Gun,” the New Yorker Emily King on “Heaven on the Ground.” It’s likely to have a following among musicians, especially through tracks like “Vanguard,” with the rhythm section of the pianist Robert Glasper, the bassist Pino Palladino and the drummer Chris Dave, who play an intricate Morse code of funk and negative space. (Mr. Palladino, one of the bassists and producers on “No Beginning No End,” played on the D’Angelo and Badu records; the engineer Russell Elevado, who recorded this one, recorded those too.)

Recorded in New York, Paris and London, the album is on a label famous for jazz, but this isn’t jazz: no solos. It’s got more live-band groove than most singer-songwriter music. It’s a little too warm and inward to be considered R&B. It is not trendy music, but its stubborn nonchalance gives it a kind of originality.

“It doesn’t feel like he’s going for an older-singer kind of vibe,” Mr. Glasper said. “He is jazz. He doesn’t have to walk around proving it. And very naturally he’s a child of hip-hop and R&B. He’s just breathing.”

I first saw Mr. James, 34, at the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition eight years ago. He was small and compact and still relatively young, but his voice seemed bigger, deeper and older. He sang “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and he seemed to be referring to Joe Williams’s sleek version from the mid-’50s. It was a centered and anxiety-free performance. His bearing implied that he didn’t care whether you liked it or not. It killed the judges, including Jimmy Scott, who waved his hands in the air as if he were in church.

Mr. James had come from Minneapolis, the only contestant in the competition who hadn’t gone to music school. The actor Billy Dee Williams, one of the M.C.’s, told him backstage that he ought to, which irritated him. “I didn’t have money to go to school,” he told me a couple of weeks ago over lunch in Fort Greene, his Brooklyn neighborhood. “It wasn’t a choice.” He didn’t win, but he did go to the New School the next year, staying on to work in the equipment room when he ran out of tuition money.

Then things started to happen — a slowly unfolding series of events routing him through Europe, distant associations with hip-hop and house music, a false start on a once-great jazz label and his current rehabilitation on another one. He has been meticulous this time, financing the recording of “No Beginning No End,” and presenting it to Blue Note as a fait accompli. “Nothing was touched,” he said proudly.

Mr. James grew up on the hip-hop and indie rock of the late ’80s and early ’90s: Ice Cube, Nirvana, the Pharcyde, Digable Planets. He is the son of a Panamanian jazz tenor saxophonist with the same name, though his father didn’t raise him; he lived with his Irish-American mother in Duluth, Minn.; Seattle; and Minneapolis. He joined his Catholic-school choir at 14 when his voice changed, then dropped out of school and worked at odd jobs for a while. “I had really fractured teen years,” he said. “It’s hard to piece it all together.”

At 17 he moved back in with his mother and returned to school; his jobs gave him income to buy records. He did it methodically. First the basics, then a wide-angle understanding of the important labels, and then deep into single artists. (He spent $ 500 on Mosaic’s 18-CD boxed set of the Nat King Cole Trio on Capitol Records, he said, and listened to nothing else for a month.) Around this time he wrote words to John Coltrane’s solo on “Equinox,” to be sung in the vocalese tradition of Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks. He shared his experiments with older musicians, the saxophonist Douglas Ewart and the pianist Carie Thomas, in Minneapolis, who had connections with Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene of the 1960s; he started playing with them and forming ideas about the entire arc of jazz history.

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