Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Jose James & Jef Neve: Team works

Jose James & Jef Neve
Jose James & Jef Neve

Having, since the 2008 release of his debut album ‘The Dreamer’, been championed by tastemakers across the globe for his warm, rich baritone and soulful take on the jazz tradition, Minneapolis-born, London-based vocalist Jose James this month delivers his first major-label release ‘For All We Know’ - a duo album of timeless jazz standards that finds him collaborating with noted Belgian pianist Jef Neve.

Indeed, with Neve himself having already released in his Belgian homeland five internationally-acclaimed solo albums, ‘For All We Know’ - which strikingly features just voice and piano - makes for an eloquently sparse, effortlessly expressive set. As James’ subtly vivid vocal performances - coupled with the set’s intimate duo format -lend new emotional depth to such beloved classics as the evocative Ella Fitzgerald favourite ‘Autumn In New York’; Billy Strayhorn’s atmospheric ‘Lush Life’; George & Ira Gershwin’s intimate ‘Embraceable You’; plus Duke Ellington’s cheeky ‘Just Squeeze Me’.

All of which results in a uniquely different-for-this-day-and-age project, which interestingly came together spontaneously after the twosome performed together on a Belgian TV show and Jef then went on to fill-in for Jose’s regular pianist at a concert in Brussels.

“Yeah, the story actually begins in 2008”, begins an instantly-talkative Jose: “I was doing a promotional tour of my album ‘The Dreamer’, and one of the dates involved going on Jef’s show in Brussels to perform as a guest with his band - for which they requested that, in addition to my own songs, we do a couple of standards together. So, though I hadn’t sung standards for a while, I agreed… Then several weeks later, I met Jef for the first time on the actual day of the show. He asked me what key I wanted to sing in, I told him… Then he asked me if I wanted to run through the songs beforehand, and I was like ‘Nah, I wanna just DO it!’!”

“So we did the songs from my album - which went really well - and then we closed with ‘Lush Life’ as just a duo, with him on piano and me singing”, he continues: “And, though I think ‘Lush Life’ is probably the hardest jazz standard there IS for a male vocalist, we performed it as if we’d been working together for 10 years! You know, we were both looking at each other while we were doing it like ‘Wow! This is really, really GOOD!’!.. Then, after we finished, I took his info, he took mine... I left Brussels the next day, and at the time didn’t think too much more OF it.”

… Nevertheless, the seeds for a future recording collaboration had already been sewn: “Yeah, what happened was, a few months later I got the offer to play at a concert in Belgium. But, because he had another engagement, my piano-player couldn’t make it”, remembers an ever-forthcoming Mr. James: “So I called Jef from New York, and asked him if he remembered when I came on his show. And when he replied ‘Yeah, of course I do’, I was like ‘Well, do you wanna do this concert with me?’… So he agreed, the concert went really well... Then afterwards I did his show again, and again we stuck to the same format - first playing my stuff and then ending with a standard, which this time was ‘Embraceable You’.”

“Then after we’d finished - because everybody loved it and there was this obvious magic between us - I said to Jef ‘YOU have the day off tomorrow; I have the day off tomorrow. Why don’t we just try to RECORD together?’”, relates Jose, now in full flow: “So he was like ‘Listen, if you’re really serious, I know a really good studio! It’s about 40 minutes away, and it’s called Galaxy!’… So the next morning we booked a whole day at the studio, just the two of us. We didn’t tell anybody about it, we just went down there with a reel-book of standards, went in, and started RECORDING!... You know, just Jef on piano and me singing - and it was all done in one take!”

“I mean, we spent like six hours in there - including lunch - and it was really just a record of our meeting and our friendship. It wasn’t anything we told our labels or our managers about. We just went in there, paid for it ourselves - and left there with the MASTER!... And it was only on the way back to Brussels that we realised we had something really special on our hands!... And that pretty much is the true story of how this album ‘For All We Know’ was MADE!”

Indeed, with no outside producers or overdubs involved, Jose recalls how the spontaneous way the songs themselves were chosen was reminiscent of an old-style jazz session from the Fifties: “Yeah, I basically just called songs!”, he recalls with a smile: “It literally was like an old skool session from the days of, say, Prestige Records with Miles Davis! And I basically just wanted to sing songs that I felt I had a good relationship with. Like with ‘Tenderly’, because it means something special to me personally - it was actually the first song I sang to my wife when I got back into singing - I literally just called over to Jef ‘Hey, do you know ‘Tenderly’?’… And we just DID it! You know, Jef had his reel-book of standards with him, and so anything he didn’t know he was literally reading and playing for the first time! Which to me was UNBELIEVABLE - and a real testament to the sheer level of musicianship that he has!”

Interestingly, it was Jef’s ties with Universal Music that resulted in ‘For All We Know’ not only becoming Joses’ major-label debut and first release in his US homeland, but also in him prestigiously becoming the first new signing to the (now-Universal-affiliated) iconic jazz label Impulse! in over a decade... And in turn reinvigorating a label that has seen no new music, period, since the release of now-sadly-deceased jazz pianist Alice Coltrane’s ‘Translinear Light’ in 2004! All which also coincides perfectly with Impulse! beginning its 50th anniversary celebrations at the end of this year!

“Yeah, what happened was with Jef being signed to Universal Jazz, he was so excited about the recording that he gave it to Wulf Muller, the HEAD of Universal Jazz”, explains the ever-articulate Mr. James: “And straightaway Wulf was like ‘I love it! I want this album! Where’s Jose? Let’s sign this record!’… And then from there Dahlia (Ambach-Caplin) of (Universal Jazz-affiliated label) Verve - who’d been interested in working with me for a while - said SHE wanted to sign it. So she signed me to Verve, which was when they then made the decision to release the album on (now-Verve-affiliated classic jazz label) Impulse!... So, you know, it went from one day of me and Jef making a private duet recording to me becoming the only artist currently signed to Impulse!! So it really is a pretty unbelievable and pretty extraordinary story for a record that we did ourselves without any producer!”

“I mean, it genuinely is a 100% artists-planned and artists-run record!”, adds Jose with pride, as our enlightening 30-minute chat approaches its end: “We came up with all the arrangements ourselves; I got to choose all the songs... And to have that kind of freedom on a major label is pretty unheard of in this day-and-age! I mean, I remember when I went to the Verve office and they were like ‘Where’s the rest of the tracks? Where’s the alternate takes?’... And I was like ‘Well, this is IT! Everything was done in ONE TAKE! There’s no overdubs - it was just us, a Neumann U47 vocal mic, and a Steinway piano! We did it exactly like (iconic old skool jazz producer) Randy Van Gelder would have done it back in the day!’... And the whole room went totally silent! Because people just don’t RECORD that like that any more! You know, most major label jazz productions these days are very POP! So I definitely think that’s what makes this project so DIFFERENT! Like there’s absolutely no way to redo a section, no way to change a particular note... It was just 100% pure improvised!”

Jose & Jef’s album ‘For All We Know’ is out now through Impulse!

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