José James has a reputation as a 21st century musical renaissance man. He's issued a remarkably consistent series of records that blur the lines between soul, funk, dance music, jazz, and rock. In addition, in 2010, he released For All We Know, a fine collection of jazz standards in duet with Belgian pianist Jef Neve.
It is from this place that James releases Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday. In his liner essay he cites Holiday as the artist who made him aspire to be a jazz singer. Accompanied by pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland, and bassist John Patitucci, James delivers a program of beauty and restraint for the centennial of her birth.
James, who has the ability to accomplish startling vocalese and scat techniques, brings none it. He offers these songs with nuance, subtlety, and grace, allowing his considerable discipline to inform his readings. He doesn't imitate Holiday -- because no one could, though many have tried -- but instead showcases how she opened herself to the songs themselves, and imbued them not only with sophistication but the cavernous honesty of emotional experience.
"Good Morning Heartache" is elegantly paced and sparsely articulated. It emerges from the shadows just enough to reveal how deep these blues go and James responds to them with his own inimitable phrasing. In "Body and Soul," passion simmers with longing and disconsolate heartache as Moran layers his chords with gentle fills. They anchor James, keeping him from slipping beneath the weight of the emotional waves.
In return, he allows the material to speak through him with slight skillful improvisational touches. In "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," this fine band flexes its muscles. Moran sprints through harmonically inventive runs atop Patitucci's frenetic comping as Harland adds elastic syncopation to bop. James doesn't enter until halfway through and glides through the lyric, creating contrast -- without limiting the swing.
The slow, simmering "Lover Man" builds and dissipates tension several times in coming from the blues' deep well. On "God Bless the Child," the pianist opts for a Fender Rhodes. James uses this change to the song's advantage. He finds the seam in the lyric -- just as Holiday did -- and allows it to carry him inside the gorgeous melody, and everything gels. "Strange Fruit" is a song covered and badly interpreted so many times it's nearly painful to hear any version but Holiday's. Until now.
Accompanied only by trancelike handclaps and a chorale of (his own) hummed backing vocals in four-part gospel harmony, James imbues his haunted reading with moral authority and harrowing impact. James' phrasing is chilling. His accusation, like Holiday's before him, comes through the painful bewilderment of delivering the lyric, not overdramatization of it. On Yesterday I Had the Blues, James stays exceptionally close to the spirit of Holiday's work. He does so without embalming her music as a museum piece or smothering his own voice, thereby adding a real contribution to her legacy.
This is his most intimate, powerful, and masterful date.
AMG review by Thom Jurek
|Brand||Blue Note Records|
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