“All my people need a taste of wonder
Knowing what it’s all about
And every time I open up my voice
Gonna let my spirit work it out.”
- Make It Right by José James
When Tokyo’s heaviest snowfall in forty-five years swept the bustling city in random episodes last February, José James, the powerful and sensual baritone, blazed in with the driving snow and wind, just enough to warm and kindle the brisk chill in people’s hearts. Playing and singing at Billboard Live Osaka and Tokyo as he had done frequently for the past six to seven years, José has sharpened his caliber, not only as an ultimately gifted performer, songwriter, arranger, and producer, but also more importantly as a true advocate of freedom in music expression.
Like many exceptional artists, José is a self-taught music man. Exposure to the elements of jazz and formal training in music came late in José’s career, when he frequently performed in theatrical plays and musicals as a young novice, that he discovered the undisputed eminence of his resonating voice. José grew up in a circle of hip-hop influences — Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, and others, and at the same time, was constantly swooned by the elegance of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and other music geniuses who sharply inspired his first songwriting attempt with The Dreamer from his first album produced in 2008.
While America may have its Bill Withers, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and all those legendary voices that oscillate in our ears for generations, José could easily rank among this cream of the crop, yet slide smoothly further beyond in incorporating an entire music genre that calls for no classification, whether it be jazz, R&B, soul, funk, hip-hop, reggae or pop. José’s irresistible magic lies in his crisp ability to fuse all these forms into a repertoire completely of his own, and achieving, therefore, what most artists dream of ever doing — free music.
Clad in casual wear and his signature dark glasses, and not seemingly cold at all despite the winter chill, José speaks from Universal Music Japan.
JJ: I want to be freed as an artist. In the U.S., once you become a jazz artist, you can’t go anywhere else. People expect a certain thing from you. They don’t think that you can be broader, but want you to play standard jazz, wear a suit, be a smooth jazz artist… or have a conservative image. It’s really difficult to shake that. I do jazz of course; I love jazz, but it’s not my entire world. I’m always trying to push the boundaries.
Indeed, José is one of the rare artists in the U.S. who stretches his music beyond geographical borders, having collaborated with masters from Europe and Africa, such as Nicola Conte, Pino Palladino, Hindi Zahra, Jef Neve, Gilles Peterson, Jazzanova, and Japanese artists Toshio Matsuura and recently, Takuya Kuroda, and more.
JJ: In Europe, it’s easier for jazz artists there to move away from that “standard” image of jazz because that’s not their original music. So, it’s easier for them to be more open-minded, and just enjoy what they do. I think it’s like in Japan, if you’re an artist, you’re expected to do traditional work. There’s a lot of cultural history here that people want to preserve.
José’s international mixture of sounds, from New York hip-hop to standard ballads, African beat, and Japanese pop and blues may be his most alluring characteristic for Japanese audiences.
JJ: This year is probably my tenth time to come to Japan. I’ve come on solo tours, and also with Nicola Conte, with McCoy Tyner, and others. Takuya Kuroda, who joins me now in this tour, and I went to school together in New York. He’s been working on my albums, especially with _Promise in Love _that we did together. Japanese people are very passionate, very specific about what they do. With Takuya, for example, the level of excellence is so high. All Japanese artists I’ve collaborated with have a high level of music knowledge and performance, and perfection in the entire process — engineering, studio recording, and labels… I have had no problems adapting to this country. The people work hard and play hard— I think that’s the Japanese story. What I appreciate most in Japan is the respect for one another and for the culture. I love its natural beauty. I have been to a lot of places — Osaka, Kyoto — and I love the shrines, the food; everything is so amazing.
Just as in Japan and in other countries, injecting every bit of electronic fusion into music has become a keen experimental tool for many artists. José is not unique to this modern approach in music production.
JJ: Electronic fusion in music is considered normal. You can’t avoid it in this computer age where music is done on computers now. Music is no longer analogue. But, it doesn’t matter as long as it is the music that you make. It’s all about the quality of the artist. Take Marvin Gaye. Before he even did his own album, he was doing work, playing for other bands, singing so many songs without really having a solo career for a long time. His songs like What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On, … these all happened later in his career. Today is the opposite. There is not much artist development. You just have to come forward and be as brilliant as you are. Some people can spend a lot of money and be a Justin Bieber, but that does not necessarily give you a long career, or give you the kind of caliber like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday. That’s the main difference for me.
And, how does José’s music reflect societal changes today?
Well, these days, everyone is talking about money. People may think the society now is shallow — accumulating wealth, power — , it could be boring, but that’s where people are today. Some artists don’t even want to work hard anymore, or necessarily want the deep stuff; they just want things easy and become rich fast. So, sometimes you hear music that’s not about substance, but about commercialism… about tracking a brand, or getting a movie deal. Music has become a stepping-stone for a lot of artists. Compare that, however, to the likes of Aretha Franklin. She learned music from her family, from church; it was part of her blood. She didn’t have to be a cover girl or be in a TV series. But, to be fair, those opportunities were not available either back then. Black artists, like Billie Holiday, had limited access to exposure. Nat King Cole couldn’t keep his TV show because he couldn’t get sponsors. Billie Holiday couldn’t get a makeup sponsor. So, they had to put all their efforts into music. It’s almost like a blessing now because music is so rich that it has so many options for artists today. As for myself, I just want to make people happy. That’s one thing I know about my gift. If I can make people happy through my music, then I know I’m doing my job.
Making it right was never an obstacle for this amazing vocalist. As with No Beginning No End, José’s latest outstanding album, his journey to deeper sound structures captures a broad scale of both soft and rhythmical tunes from Come to My Door, Tomorrow, Heaven in the Ground, to the more spirited Sword + Gun, and Trouble. At Billboard Live Tokyo on a special Valentine’s treat, matching José’s dance grooves, addicting hand movements, and vibrating voice, was a unique performance by an all-female Japanese string quartet that added sweetness and spice to the grand evening, concluded with a special encore number, Promise in Love, with the likewise, captivating trumpeter Takuya Kuroda. There should be more wondrous beginnings for José James; more breathtaking visions, more open doors, and freer dreams with no end.
“I am discovery-fate
I am the voice that calls to hate
For I am the force that Heaven sent
Yes, I was born to live again
I have no beginning, I have no end.”
- from the album No Beginning No End
Catch the next gig at Billboard Live Japan