REVIEW: José James at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

José James at Cheltenham
Photo credit John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk

José James
Arena Stage, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30th April 2016. Review by Peter Jones.


José James has solved a conundrum that has defeated many a singer in a field 95% of whom cling to the repertoire and stylings of 60, 70 or 80 years ago, namely how to drag vocal jazz into the present century.

So different is he from the popular image of a jazz singer that some audience members at Cheltenham on Saturday may have been left wondering what he was doing there, with his red leather jacket and hip-hop hairdo. Where the hell was the tuxedo?

James is, first and foremost, a creative, improvising jazz musician in the way that Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy were, and in the way Kurt Elling is now. That is, he uses his voice as an instrument – but unlike theirs, his is not necessarily an acoustic instrument, like a saxophone or trumpet, but a mutated one, built for the age of sampling and other forms of musical electronica.

Two elements of his performance technique seem to have evolved, even in the short time since his Ronnie Scott’s shows a few months back. First of all, he is expanding his use of the improvisational method he has been developing for years. Secondly, he is no longer content merely to sing tunes in a conventional linear sequence, and now works with whole blocks of material - not just medleys but extended mash-ups.

Take the Bill Withers segment. James and his band were tired, having flown in at some ungodly hour of that morning from Latvia, which is probably why the dark, paranoid Who Is He And What Is He To You started off at a bit of a gallop and had to be reined in. This segued into Ain’t No Sunshine, and then Grandma’s Hands. James now took flight with an extended solo, breaking up and repeating the lyrics over and over again, chopping them into pieces until they were no more than individual syllables. Empathic keyboardist and long-time collaborator Takeshi Onbayashi responded closely, fading the chords in and out with a volume pedal.

Park Bench People bore little resemblance to its recorded version on James’s debut album The Dreamer, incorporating ghostly echoes of Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, Onbayashi’s delicate synth solo over bubbling chords fading for a fine drum outing by Joe Blaxx. This segued into a new tune dedicated to messrs. Trump and Cruz, with the repeated line ‘Can you relate / We’re livin’ in a po-lice state’, James once again riffing furiously on the melodic and lyrical fragments like a free jazz saxophonist, as the band glided into a pulped Strange Fruit, its lyrics interspersed with ‘PO-LICE STATE’. Then it was back to the wordless Red Clay.

Notwithstanding his technical mastery, James also knows very well that he is located at the modern end of a tradition: he is saturated in music history. And in that tradition there is plenty of righteous anger; yet James is in complete control of the boiling rage behind the songs he sings about homelessness, political corruption and police violence. He has taken on the moral and political themes of Gil Scott-Heron, whilst already way beyond him musically.

And so, with a grateful thank you to London’s own Gilles Peterson, who launched his career, José James left the stage.

Shell-shocked as they were, the audience demanded an encore, whereupon the band confounded expectations by returning with James’s composition Do You Feel, a lush, serene soul ballad in the style of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, the highlight of which was Solomon Dorsey’s heartbreakingly beautiful bass-and-vocal solo. It was the calm after the storm.


LINKS: José James website
Tina Edwards interviews José James

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