Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Jose James: (The Music Of Billie Holiday) Ronnie Scott's 19/05/2015

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When it comes to artists performing a Billie Holiday tribute, who could do the job justice? Well, a few come to mind; Dee Dee, Carleen Anderson, Z Star, I could go on...but male artists? Uuuum tricky...I'm struggling. Perhaps Cleveland Watkiss and this guy, the architecht of cool, Mr Jose James! You'd only have to listen to "The Dreamer" to see why and tonight a full house at Ronnie's were there to see to see how he would fare, taking on a such a tumultuous and quite frankly forboding task.

Doubts and fears were quickly dispelled as the excellent trio consisting of Leo Genovese (piano), Solomon Dorsey (double bass) and (drummer) Nate Smith, cooly launched into "Good Morning Heartache",which pretty much set the mood for the whole evening. A night of ripping piano solos, (including manual dampening of strings!) deft touches of a double bass player, who scatted while soloing and an ever keen drummer who JJ kept on a tight leash like a rabid dog who wanted to bite!

An exquisite version of "Tenderly" saw an empathetic JJ get right inside this tune as his band, light as a feather at times and hard as rock when needed, hypnotised the gushing audience spellbound by his detached cool and concentration. Never forced, his jazz sensibilities were heightened to the max as he met this special challenge head on. This gig was bringing out much emotion and a few tears in the guy who clearly relished being back in London, the place that welcomed him with open hearts and gave him his first break. James was in no mood for prisoners as he displayed some interesting vocal acrobatics (eerily inspired by Drum & Bass!) as he organically looped himself and with arms flailing, conducted himself too with repetitive phrases and played with the syncopation reminiscent of the way Van Morrison used to do back in his prime.

Meanwhile, the blues of "Fine And Mellow" chugged constantly with a fine groovy backbeat attacked with relish as Genovese deconstructed the blues in his solo and then conversely, scooped up and reassembled by Dorsey's scat and thwack approach. Suffice to say, the band was cooking. Going off piste for a second with his own composition, "Come To My Door," was a welcome relief as James strummed his guitar, assisting the natural cool groove of this peach of a tune.

Now obviously fired up and feeling the love James, (much to his regret) took a break, causing a concentration break, as he launched into "Lover Man" and quickly changed his mind, holding back the backbeat in favour of the more languorous feel of Body & Soul...and with drummer safely under-wraps and held back James turned on that old "Black Magic" and got right under the skin and bones of the song. It's at times like these when you really begin to appreciate the material Holiday had in the first place, some of the greatest jazz songs ever! (and some of them recorded on the same day!) Tunes peppered with greats such as Lester Young and Count Basie to name but a few.

The material came think n' fast, but the absolute highlight was "God Bless The Child," a tour-de-force which saw James extemporise beyond belief, quoting and channelling Bill Withers and the late great Gil Scott-Heron - ramped up by an explosive dose of reggae drumming that reached Sly Dunbar territory, a towering performance bringing the evening to a close.

Returning for a solo accapella version of "Strange Fruit" was a defining moment too. James looped-up his vocal into a funeral black mass of sonic sadness and like his predecessor (who sang it in the club way back in '58 ) commanded absolute silence on this, the ultimate torch song ever put to record, reverberated ominously around us as this solemn prayer unfolded its full horror to a stunned audience.

Compelling stuff and perfectly executed by an artist at the top of his game...

Words Emrys Baird

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