José James is the singer of the moment at the crowded crossroads of jazz, hip-hop and R&B. With a hot album on Blue Note Records ("No Beginning No End") and a string of high-profile gigs (Wednesday, he'll be on Leno, along with Jerry Seinfeld), James would seem to be the new thing.
He is, and he isn't.
As James demonstrated Friday for two-plus hours at the San Jose Jazz Winter Fest, his music is as much about tradition as it is about his hip-hop word play and rhythm permutations, with which he seems to grab imaginary languages out of the air -- at blinding speed, like a computer processor. That's amazing to witness. But at the same time, he croons like Lou Rawls (that sexy, urbane baritone), with a
James, 35, even has cited late-period Billie Holiday as a template for the languorous, lagging beats of J Dilla, the late hip-hop producer whose sound is so important to his generation of jazz musicians, most notably pianist Robert Glasper (who also is appearing at this year's cutting-edge Winter Fest). If you want a taste of how all this filters through James's music, here's your chance: he and the band are making several more stops around the Bay Area, through Monday.
Friday's sold-out show at the
It's not a far leap from Sly's "In Time" (from "Fresh") with its lurking, stretched-out rhythms, to the down-tempo minimalism of British drummer Richard Spaven, who flew in for this leg of James's tour. On "Body," his rhythm pocket kept simultaneously collapsing and re-accelerating, hanging just behind the beat -- though it's hard to say exactly where the beat is here. Each member of the band views it from a different perspective; the group surrounds the beat, which is spacious and vibrates with a sort of controlled wobble. (Glasper has called the effect "drunk funk.")
James segued to Marvin Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," grabbing the "oh-oh" part of the chorus, repeating and transmuting it, like some new kind of tape loop. He stayed put in 1971 to sing Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" -- more slithery-snake word play with "I know, I know," followed by an authentically CTI-ish solo from keyboardist Kris Bowers, who sounded like Herbie Hancock (or Eumir Deodato) going to church. He's in his early 20s, a great player.
"Trouble" was next. With its creeping Sly bass line, it's the hit tune from the new record. (James was in full Lou Rawls mode here, mellow and full-bodied, but with a lightness. When he's really on, his voice is like good Scotch.) "Vanguard," co-composed by James and Glasper -- and referencing Stevie Wonder's "You've Got It Bad, Girl," from 1973 -- turned into an extended jam.
Trumpeter Takuya Kuroda built his solo out of a hook from Hancock's "Watermelon Man," the Head Hunters version, from (I'm not making this up) 1973. It was impressive, but the key member of this band is electric bassist and sweet-voiced backup singer Solomon Dorsey, who improvises pure melody in his solos and anchors every groove and tricky tempo downshift with his organic feel. Unlike the other members of the band, he doesn't seem to work at achieving an effect.
Toward the end of the show, James sang Freestyle Fellowship's "Park Bench People." Based on the chords to Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay," it's a jazzy number, though it's the one on which James best showed off his hip-hop credentials -- this is where he did his speed-of-light word play and shape-shifting rhythms. Amazing.
But for pure soul, it would be hard to beat the show-closing "Do You Feel," his gospel-pop number off the new album, which would have suited Aretha Franklin to a T around the time of "Spirit in the Dark." James sang the hell out of it.
Through: March 11
When/where: 8 p.m., March 9, The New Parish, 579 18th St., Oakland; 9 p.m., March 10, Brick and Mortar Music Hall, 1710 Mission St., San Francisco; 7:30 p.m., March 11, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz
Tickets: March 9, $17-$20, www.thenewparish.com; March 10, $15-$20, www.brickandmortarmusic.com; March 11, $21, wwwkuumbwajazz.org
Also: San Jose Jazz Winter Jazz Fest continues through March 15 with acts including Robert Glasper (sold out), Tony Monaco and Vijay Iyer; www.sanjosejazz.org