Jose James’ music defies easy categorization. Growing up in Minneapolis, the 35 year old was inspired by a variety of influences. His Irish mother, a dyed-in-the-wool hippie, introduced him to ‘60s Rock & Roll and Folk. His Panamanian father was a multi-instrumentalist, who focused on Jazz. Jose sang in school choirs and later received formal training at the New School in New York.
Before striking out on his own, James enjoyed rich apprenticeships with Jazz giants McCoy Tyner, Chico Hamilton and Junior Mance.
In 2008, James recorded his solo debut, The Dreamer and quickly followed up in 2010 with Black Magic, both on the tiny Brownswood label. He also released an album of Jazz standards, For All We Know, on the Verve label.
As impressive as these efforts were, they basically serve as a preamble for James’ new album, No Beginning No End, released through Blue Note Records.
Blue Note is the perfect home for James. The storied Jazz label was established in 1937 and introduced the world to a variety of Jazz idioms: Boogie Woogie, Modern Jazz, Hard Bop and Be Bop, to name a few.
Everyone from Art Blakey to Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock recorded for Blue Note. Most recently vocalists like Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones have guided the label into the 21st century.
The album opens with the extended, insistent seduction of “It’s All Over Your Body.” Lush to the point of fecundity, the track is cloaked pulsating percussion, slinky, syncopated horns and a bubbling electric piano. James’ vocals are ripe and hypnotic.
On both “Sword + Gun” and “Heaven On The Ground,” James is accompanied by female vocalists. “Sword..” is a biting anti-war message featuring French Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra. The song’s percolating rhythm is provided by Gnawa percussion, which is sacred in Moroccan music. Zahra’s vocals weave throughout the bright tapestry of synchronized horns. Echoing African musicians like Hugh Masakela and Fela Kuti, the track’s sweetly infectious melody belies the socially conscious subject.
“Heaven…” is a slow-burning duet between James and acclaimed Singer/Songwriter Emily King. Accented by mellow Spanish guitar, the tune locks into a sensual ‘70s groove. The lyrics are a joyful ode to domestic bliss.
The best tracks here are “Trouble,” “Come To My Door” and “Do You Feel” effortlessly blend a surfeit of influences.
“Trouble” is a seamless homage to the Jazz/Funk style pioneered by the C.T.I. label. “All my life has been a struggle,” James insists, but the song’s soaring melody makes it difficult to focus on his catalog of woes. Hammond B3 fills and fluttery horns
dance around a tick-tock beat, throbbing bass lines and James’ dulcet tones. It’s a potent combination.
“Come To My Door” is built on an urgent kick drum beat (that recalls Bill Withers’ “Use Me”) and layered with honeyed guitar licks. Here James offers reassurance to a former flame… “I know you’re out there doing fine, if you need a place to go you can come to my door.”
Finally, “Do You Feel” is a tour de force. James’ lyrics extol the pleasures of love both sanctified and carnal. Robert Glasper’s churchy, spiritual piano chords intertwine with shimmery Hammond B3 trills . Cresting over the top is James’ powerful call & response vocals that walk the line between piety and eroticism.
Other stand out tracks include “Bird Of Space,” a conflagration of obsession and desire that is positively incendiary. The title cut is a spatial and soulful meditation on mutual attraction. “Vanguard” builds on a foundation of electric piano and odd time signatures. Here the lyrics sketch out a quixotic quest for spiritual fulfillment.
The album closes with the one-two punch of “Tomorrow,” and “Come To My Door (Reprise).” The former is a piano driven tone poem that shifts from mournful to courageous. The latter is a languid and playful reworking of the James/King duet.
The production chores on No Beginning No End are handled by Pino Palladino. The versatile Welsh bass player has played with everyone from Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and John Mayer. In fact he was the only choice to replace John Entwistle when the indefatigable WHO bass player died suddenly in the midst of a tour. His prowess is well matched by Grammy winning Jazz pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Chris Dave.
Jose James has managed to distill a plethora of influneces here. Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Shuggie Otis, Me’ Shell N’degeocello , Stax-Volt, Sade, Motown, Hip Hop and D’Angelo. Yet nothing feels contrived or derivative.
No Beginning No End feels both ambitious and effortless. No doubt Jose James has a rich and rewarding future ahead of him.