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With all of the talk of jazz needing young listeners, and in particular young African American listeners, it is unconscionable that Jose James—-who sang a marvelous set at Bohemian Caverns Thursday night, is not the talk of the jazz world.
James, 29, doesn’t sound like a jazz singer. Oh, his throaty baritone and rapid “vocalese” (lyrical improvisation) is in the same lineage Eddie Jefferson, but his delivery full of is dark and earthy and philosophical inflections that place it more squarely in the realm of neo-soul. That was even the case in James’ cover (with self-written lyrics) of John Coltrane’s probing blues “Equinox”; James’ band (drummer Adam Jackson, electric bassist Chris Smith, and keyboardist Gideon van Gelder) captured the majesty of ‘Trane’s modal modern jazz, but James’ heady but understated declaration “I go to claim what’s rightfully mine” was impossible to limit to jazz. Doubly so, his gentle gospel waltz “The Dreamer”—-the title track of his album, dedicated to Martin Luther King—-on which he adopted a lighter, higher voice that might have made him the envy of the Quiet Storm movement in the 1980s. He sounded old enough to have done so, too, never once betraying his youth.
But neither of these was the magic moment. In between the two, James called a tune named “Electromagnetic,” which shifted the band’s whole position. Van Gelder switched to Fender Rhodes; Smith initiated a slippery but steady bass line, and Jackson launched into the classic “Funky Drummer” lick. Was this funk, or fusion? No – it was hip-hop. James’ lyric was free-flowing, a percussive ramble that was in essence freestyle rapping with a melody. As it progressed, however, he would stop on a word or syllable and repeat it in an endless staccato—vocal glitch. His right hand even imitated the motion of a deejay scratching a record. It was a brilliantly clever moment for any musical performance (let along jazz), made even better when he repeated it during a medley of the hard bop standards “Moanin’” and “Work Song.”
So why isn’t this guy, with his ingenious ability to find and exploit the common ground between jazz, soul, funk, and hip-hop, jazz’s darling? He could and should be touted as the wave of the future; instead James has given up on the New York jazz scene and relocated to London. (When you can’t get a gig in New York City, you’re in trouble.) It could be he simply doesn’t fit the current jazz-singer template (young, female, pretty, probably white); or, as jazz critic and former CP contributor John Murph put it, “Perhaps [the jazz world] is waiting for him to incorporate James Taylor and Radiohead into his repertoire.” James, the jazz world, and jazz audiences deserve better.
Which is why I won’t delay any longer letting you hear the man, performing the aforementioned Coltrane tune “Equinox.”