Jose James’ reputation precedes him. I haven’t come across a review that didn’t lead me believe (or straight up attest) that the man is dope. He’s known for being one of those gifted, genre-bending performers with an inimitable tone that makes him more than “just a man with the voice” as he would humbly call himself when introducing his band.
At the show, the audience seems to have more thirtysomethings and more people are holding onto cocktails than there’d be, at say, an Ab-Soul show. That’s to be expected. This is the crowd you’d think would be hip to “The Baritone” and would be sure to catch his first show in Philadelphia. Jose James might be famed for melding the worlds of hip-hop and jazz, but he still gets put under the jazz label mostly.
I’m sorry that the above photo doesn’t capture it, but that was Jose, as the kids used to say, swaggin. The drums laid the beat down first, just like they do for the record, “All Over Your Body,” and James stood, or rather vibed, intently, beginning the motions that he’d sway for the rest of the show. James does this thing where he looks like both an emcee and a maestro. His hands zig zag up and over, only it’s not just to the beat, but the direction his next note is heading. The sound of “All Over Your Body” feels very Voodoo. However, it also feels like it might not be fair to put it like that. Sure, there are moments that remind of the stardust on D’Angelo’s masterpiece but how much of that is the invocations of someone who’s never denied being a fan, and how much was simply the place you arrive when you study jazz, clearly played Tribe on repeat at some point, and arrange your sound for drums, bass, trumpet and a Rhodes that sounds too good?
The show pushes forward and the hip hop hand gestures are still there. They get more trippy to watch when James does this other thing: sing-sampling lines of different melodies into a new remix? mash-up? He returns to a word and repeats as if the record scratched, only he’s the “record.” He ends a phrase by cutting off his breath as if he reached the end of the loop. When he mixed three Bill Withers songs (three by my count, anyway. I heard “Just the Two of Us,” “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but he easily could have sing-sampled bits of other things that slipped right on past me), someone said, “Wait, that line comes from another song,” before he figured out what the brother was doing. “Stop. That’s crazy,” said the woman catching on. James heard her. And he laughed.
He sing-raps too. He sounds like old school rap when he does. It was often laidback with flows that switched up infrequently like the time before emcees started really making a contest out that stuff. At times, these flows are arresting. But there are points that run the risk of seeming like Dylan (Dylan, Dylan).
It’s the last show of the tour. As James nears the end of the set, he lets us know there won’t be an encore. “We’ve got a train to New York. Not going to fuck around and take bows. Just going to play some music.”
He sings “Do You Feel.” As his band plays he throws out a two-syllable “sample” that takes the moment to a certain place (if the song itself hadn’t already). He sings, “Georgia.”
It’s instances like those that reveal that James is doing something that so many of his contemporaries don’t do. While they may share his referential nature, his show doesn’t elicit of an eyeroll for aiming too high or sounding derivative. The sampling allows him to give nods and appear to be making a new song entirely, or drop just a little something on his listeners’ ears. He sings “Georgia” only once, and doesn’t revisit it or any other part of that song. James is right: reminding an audience of the timelessness of Ray Charles only takes one word.
At the close, James does what he says he wouldn’t do, and bows arm-in-arm with his band, since it’s the last show and all. This might be a time to wonder when he’d flip this jazz one more time, but the posters at the venue give away that the fans won’t have wait that long again. James will be back in April.
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