José James: Dizzy Heights
“That's a great question, I think it was both” José James begins when asked if the more mainstream sound of this new album was a conscious choice or the result of an organic creative process. With his latest studio album, “Love In A Time Of Madness” James has emerged with an arguably more accessible sound than on previous offerings.
With seven releases now in his discography, the Minneapolis native has spent over two decades working on his craft. Primarily known as a jazz artist, José first garnered the attention of music lovers with his 2008 debut “The Dreamer”, a collection of smokey grooves, influenced by jazz masters like John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. Always willing to explore new sonic realms, James' 2010 release “Blackmagic”, produced by Flying Lotus, showcased more experimental production, mixing electronica and scattered drum loops with his signature soulful vocals. “No Beginning No End”, his first release for the legendary label Blue Note, was considered a breakthrough for James. Produced with the incomparable Pino Palladino, the album combines classic R&B melodies, neo-soul, and José's natural ability for jazz improvisation. The alternative rock inspired “While You Were Sleeping” dropped in 2014 followed later by a Billie Holiday tribute album “Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday” This time around, James has called on the production talents of Miguel collaborator Tario and Anthony Hamilton producers, Likeminds. José is also featured in the up-coming movie and soundtrack, “Fifty Shades Darker”.
“There's a new moment that's emerging in pop and R&B. My favourite artists have gone from underground artists to popular artists” James continues. “Somebody like Anderson.Paak who went from being an underground artist to quickly opening for Beyonce, who I also love...just to be in this time where an artist like Beyonce can play a stadium and project the word feminist behind her, it's a really cool time. It reminds me of when I was in high school and there was all these cool artists coming out like Tribe called Quest, Erykah Badu, Ten Thousand Maniacs and the more white indie band thing, I kind of feel like we're back to that. I didn't necessarily want to do commercial work for the sake of it, but now that we're in this moment where some of the biggest artists are getting a lot more personal and creative, it felt like a good time to throw my voice in there. "Especially right now, with Brexit and Trump, I just don't want necessarily to just play jazz clubs and have few people see me, I would rather push my perspective, which is female positive, which is people of colour positive. I want to reach more people".
Originally intended to be a double album, exploring socially conscious issues and matters of the heart, in the end, James decided that the positive message of love would be the main theme on the album. "It was a long process. My first idea was to work with a bunch of different producers. You have conversations at the beginning and everyone thinks, let's make the next "What's Going On". Everyone is positive and idealistic about it. I know people like Saul Williams have made protest a really big part of their music and as an artist and I think that's very important. Hearing the news in the U.S (about police brutality against African Americans), it just became really depressing. So I thought, I don't think the mission of this album needs to be the same. People are talking about it (everywhere) and I don't think people need to be reminded of it. It's an on-going thing and I think it's better for me personally, to provide one solution and to provide a safe place. Sexism became the new struggle of the album…I always try to make a point of writing with female writers. Talia (Billig) is one of THE great female writers and we talked a lot about it. You find out the higher you go, there's a lot of resistance to that”.
Raised in a musical home, José discovered his love of jazz through investigating the origins of the samples he heard in hip hop. So does he still take the time to go digging for hidden musical gems? "Absolutely. That's hip hop's greatest gift to the world, really. Pulling from every source, pulling from every culture and turning it into something new. I think it's a whole spirit of a generation. I think it's symbolic of the hip hop generation - trying to make the best out of what we've been given. We've been recycling history for a long time. There's a whole part of my set where I use Ableton Push and sampling people like Richard Pryor and black comics who are talking about police brutality over J. Dilla beats. There's something very raw about hip hop that people ‘just get’. I like how it's direct, you don't have to necessarily have go to school to understand what's being done. For jazz I did, when I first heard jazz, I didn't understand it at all. I liked it a lot but the bass was doing one thing and the saxophone player was doing another thing. It really confused me when I was fourteen (laughs). Now I love it and really appreciate it for the art form that it is. What's cool about hip hop is that it really has lead me to expand my world in a way that no other music has done."
You can read more from our exclusive interview with José James, including his thoughts on his new sound, working with producer/rapper and man of many artistic talents, Flying Lotus. Plus the impact his "super-naturally talented" father had on his career, writing lyrics and a vocal melody to John Coltrane's classic "Equinox" at high school and the sometimes turbulent career path which has taken him to where he is today ...All in the current issue of Blues & Soul Magazine - click the link below to order straight from our shop or read on for high street retailer details.
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The album “Love In A Time Of Madness” is out on Blue Note
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Words Karen Lawler