Jose James channels his idols

The latest music of José James has a new context altogether
Janette Beckman

"I call Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke 'my uncles,'" says Minneapolis-bred singer José James. "They were all 'trouble men,' and obviously Marvin Gaye made the album Trouble Man. It's the uncle you always hear the rumors about. He comes for the holidays and he's got presents and he's charming and funny, but you wonder 'Is he okay?' It's all in that vein. [I'm] stepping into that persona as a soul singer coming from a jazz singer."

He's talking about "Trouble," a cut from No Beginning No End, an album that positions James in the satisfying genre murk alongside the Soulquarians, a collective of players like Questlove from the Roots, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, and others who crafted albums unconfined by R&B, soul, or really any strict classification back in the late '90s and early aughts. Bassist Pino Palladino lent a muscular and experimental bottom line to many albums from that set, and he's back to help spark that vibe on No Beginning.

For James, who now resides in Brooklyn, this was a chance to break away from the strictures of his Verve contract, and a budding familiarity with the Dakota Jazz Club over the past decade, and delve into far-reaching material that still showcases his majestic voice. "This was five times more expensive than any project I've done," he says of the two-year process for his first album via Blue Note. "But I was the executive producer, so I could say, "Yeah, let's have strings on that." You can feel it when you listen to it. It's an artist's album."

The organ and horn-flavored "Trouble" is what James spiritedly performed during recent TV spots on Conan and The Late Show with David Letterman — the latter also featured him literally bumping into Charlie Sheen backstage, which nearly left the actor with a busted ankle — but the album also finds a sinuous, darker path. "Bird of Space" is nearly nine minutes of quiet introspection resulting from brainstorming in London with the album's horn arranger, Takuya Kuroda. With some Jameson flowing, James played a lot of Madlib's instrumental productions from Strong Arm Steady's In Search of Stoney Jackson, and Kuroda countered with hard bop records, and this idea was born. "That's the only track that doesn't have a bass line, but you don't miss it," James says.

This is an especially vindicating time for James as an artist and songwriter. First of all, many of the No Beginning tracks were originally demos for his old label that went unheralded. And then, there's still a shred of humility from this son of a musician who spent his days poring over records at the Electric Fetus, as well as listening to KBEM and KMOJ in his youth. "I used to deliver futons across the street from the Cedar," James recalls, referencing the spot where he'll celebrate his new album's release. "It's really an accomplishment. To come back and play across the street from where I used to schlep mattresses. Not that long ago, either. That was 2004. Not ancient history."

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