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A DIVINE TRINITY: The Black Messiah
Carlos Javier Ortiz




Many people believe that vulnerability represents weakness rather than strength.  Not in the case of multifaceted jazz singer, Jose James.  Born of Irish-American and Afro-Panamanian parents, James’ musical style drapes a curtain of mystery that  lends to his seductive paradigm shifts in music.  A genesis of departure from tradition, like the blues of Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, James chooses to escape into worlds that many of us are afraid to enter.  A consummate free jazz artist with a hip hop posture, James is a chameleon that willfully changes from that of a tailored suit to denim, sneakers and a fitted baseball cap, all while retaining a sense of integrity and a bag of nuances including rock, pop, electronica, dance and soul.

Having completed four albums in the past seven years on labels such as Brownswood, Verve and Blue Note Records, James has managed to make a name for himself in the jazz world.  He’s worked with artists such as Chico Hamilton, Junior Mance, Emily King, Flying Lotus, Taylor McFerrin and many others on albums The Dreamer,  Blackmagic and No Beginning No End.  His most recent release on Blue Note Records entitled While You Were Sleeping in 2014 was a drastic departure from his first three projects rooted in breezy-melancholy, soulful jazz tunes that disappointed many critics.  While You Were  Sleeping was a bold mixture of elements taken from pop, rock, folk, electronica and R&B that simulated a feel of Red Hot Chili Peppers meets Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.  The album featured contributions by his long time band, including pianist Kris Bowers, bassist Solomon Dorsey and drummer Richard Spaven as well as guitarist Brad Allen Williams, trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and vocalist Becca Stevens.  According to James, Sleeping was inspired by the complexities of Nirvana, Stereolab and Alice Coltrane as well as spiritual epiphanies felt during his visit to Jakarta, Indonesia.  Although shunned by some critics and journalists refusing to review the album, James still manages to capture a deep emotional edge with all of his music.

James approaches each album as a novelist and is currently gearing up to release his fifth album project dedicated to Billie Holiday’s 100th Anniversary entitled Yesterday I Had The Blues schedule to drop on Blue Note Records on March 31st.  The tribute album will feature participation from Jason Moran, John Patitucci and Eric Harland.  James and I had a moment to share some of the complex issues surrounding his artistic integrity and musical approach.

jose james Yesterday I had the blues


TAON:  As a world traveler coming from the mid-west, living in New York,  do you feel the experience has transformed you as well as your artistic career?

JJ:  Wow.  Well, I moved to New York in 1999.  I’ve been off and on since then.  I went back to Minneapolis for a couple of years and I lived overseas in London for a year or two. I’ve been back and forth, in and out and it’s a different New York every time I come back.   In ’99, Brooklyn was just opening up for people, particularly white people.    Glasper was still playing at the Up and Over with Bilal sitting in.  It was very grass roots.   Things were still coming together.  The hip hop-jazz connection was very different.  There was more excitement about jazz in New York at that time.  It was before the crash… then 9/11 happened.  Everything changed.

As an artist, that made me feel the fragility of life and the importance of doing something real.  When you have the chance, make a statement.  I remind myself that you need to stay focused on what you need to do.

As for travel, it’s addictive.  You start out missing home, and feeling the road is separate. Now, the road is home.  Almost like a Buddhist concept.  Wherever I am, that is my home.  I’m in that moment.  Travel has brought me that.  Even when I’m in a place that I don’t particularly like, I still find the beauty and bring my culture to it.  I’m an ambassador.  That’s what I do.  I learn so much.

You can follow your Google or Facebook analytics and find that people are buying your music here or there.  But, how do people feel about it?  How do they listen to it.  It’s different how it’s consumed in Tokyo versus the Bay Area.  People react differently.  That shapes the next thing.  It’s funny how people that come to my live show are not surprised by the changes in musical directions with the band.  For example, we would play stuff during sound check, write music and try it out that night, wherever we were, France, or somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  It’s different for critics who don’t necessarily come to the shows who say “now Jose is on some other thing.”  Where’s this coming from?  It’s a gradual progression that you used to get when you’d see John Coltrane at the Vanguard for three weeks.  We’re missing the process.  What you see now is the finished product.  But you used to see Miles trying out different things.

TAON:  The title of your most recent album While You Were Sleeping is interesting.  Was that a metaphor for people sleeping on your skills?  Is there a double-entendre associated with the title?

JJ:  It’s both.  It is that, but it is also that I’m interested what happens when we dream.  In that process, physically you are there, but spiritually you are somewhere else.  That’s kinda where the album came from…and then yeah,  keep sleeping on me.  People have been underestimating me since I came out.

Even on Black Magic, I met Flying Lotus, we started working on all of these tracks. We were actually going to do the entire project together,  and the label (Brownswood Recordings) said that he was too young.  So that was crazy and I was so frustrated, which is why that album got choked up.  I push to have Lotus on the album, I loved his stuff and they were saying they couldn’t clear the samples, he’s too young, etc. Typical stupid label shit.  I was like yo, this dude is a genius, so forget you guys.  He didn’t have an album out yet.  He released an EP, Reset, which is still my favorite Lotus stuff.  By the time that record progressed, he blew up and the label was like, “Oh, you were right!”   But it was too late, they pushed it back to the point where I couldn’t even release it.  That’s the downside of being on the vanguard of something.  People are not ready.  There was definitely no other singer coming from jazz that was trying to do all this type of stuff. I knew that if I was coming from jazz, that’s what I wanted to do.  Even with the latest album, people in Europe were like, “how do you know about Nirvana?” or somebody would ask, “how do you know about Nick Drake?”  It’s like you’re the idiot savant.  It’s like Earl The Sweatshirt says, “I’m too black for the white kids, and too white for the black kids.”  Still, who always gets it is Japan.

TAON:  People tend to label you as a hip hop-jazz artist.  Was that how you originally poised yourself when you began making music?

JJ:  For me, it’s all jazz.  I studied it.  I learned about jazz through hip-hop and samples.  I listened to A Tribe Called Quest and Prince Paul and crate diggin’.  I  was like, what is this?  Roy Ayers?  For me it was a beautiful discovery going backwards.  I wanted to know as much as Ali Shaheed Muhammad knew and what Prince Paul knew.  I wanted to know the source.  When I found jazz, it wasn’t anything as deep as that.  Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane.  It was everything.  The difficulty is that I see jazz as everything while the industry sees jazz as this small thing.  They have their Michael Buble’s and Diana Krall’s making all the money.  The rest is just some weird fringe.  It’s also the perception.  Jazz dudes in the 40’s and 50’s were clean.  They looked great.  Esquire Magazine just named Thelonious Monk one of their top ten style icons.  Jazz artists presented themselves well and presented the music well.  I’m not saying you have to wear suits today, but there’s a certain vibe that has been lost.  When you look at dudes in hip hop or pop, they’re clean. Ladies like that.  So when I made the statement that I don’t want to be only considered a jazz singer, people didn’t get it.  The box you’ve put my culture in is too small.


TAON:  Five albums later, do you feel a sense of growth and evolution since the days of the New School for Jazz and your original ideas of collaboration? Did you ever imagine you would be here today?

JJ:  I was just so happy to get signed and have the opportunity.  I didn’t even have a passport.  The next thing I know, I’m working with Giles Peterson, and now I have fans in Osaka.  For me, it was like, maybe I’ll have one album, and it was The Dreamer.  I was thinking, this may be the only album I’ll ever put out.  I put all of my energy into it and it opened up everything.  The Dreamer gave me permission to do anything I wanted to do personally.  The industry didn’t necessarily think so, but that’s how I feel.  I can be anybody I want to.  And I’m doing it.  If I want to sing with Junior Mance, I’ll do it.  I’m singing with Phillip Bailey, Christian McBride and Fantasia, as well as performing “Trouble” with a big band.  That’s dope!  There’s the business and the creative.  Now, you can be creative with business, but they really are two separate things.  If you want to be fully creative, then you have to understand the impact of that.  It’s been enough to make a living, take care of my band, hire great musicians, tour comfortably and present the music at a high level.  I haven’t chased hits or done things that certain labels want me to do.  Right now, I’m not that kind of artist.  This is what I want to do.  Take it or leave it.  That’s been my career to date.  I’m definitely proud of the output.  It’s been an artist’s journey.  It’s documenting where I’ve been in the moment one hundred percent.

TAON:  As an artist that owns a style of departure from tradition, were there any fears, reservations or epiphanies going into your last recording?

JJ:  All of the above.  Honestly, something happened while in Jakarta for me.  I really felt the presence of the divine.  What was revealed to me was that it’s not about religion.  I have many faces.  I heard the Muslims call to prayer.  I saw Buddhist statues.  It was such a heavy mix.  It really affected me, and I was listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane.  1982’s, Turiyah Sings (Cassette Album) and James Blake.  Both very similar, synthy, experimental, deep bass stuff.  All these songs came from that place.  It wasn’t really a choice, it was a spiritual moment.  I knew I needed to make this and I needed to progress as a spiritual artist.  People need to hear this.  Whoever needs to hear it will hear it.  People came to me like, “We love No Beginning, No End, it goes down so easy.  The Emily King joint and “Trouble” is so classic!  Can you just do that stuff again?”  That album was the most commercial and pop Jose James album that anyone’s heard.   I mean, we were on the tonight show with Fallon and all that stuff.  But, in my heart, I couldn’t do it.  I could’ve done it technically and sung that way, but it wasn’t in my heart.

I have a threesome of musical idols which I refer to as parents; Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday.  Those three artists have so much in common from drug addiction, horrible childhoods, to the struggle of expressing themselves and not wanting to be pigeon held, and they were all innovators.  They are three different faces of the same energy.  But you hear the cry of pain.  They fought for something serious.  It wasn’t easy for any of them.


TAON:  With While You Were Sleeping, how did it feel relinquishing some of your creative control to your band, similar to how Prince began incorporating his bands input?  How did that co-production of the sound fabric come into play for the final product?

JJ:  Well, it was extremely complex.  Everyone was excited, but ultimately I had executive control.  It is a Jose James album.  That’s how it’s always going to be because my name is on it.  That being said, we started recording a couple tracks and I felt that I wanted to bring in somebody else.  So I spoke to some people in Diplo’s camp  and wanted an electronic producer.  I wanted to record it live, then bring in somebody to add colors.  As we started the process, I was very happy with what we came up with.  Kris Bowers went really deep on the synth territory.  Brian Bender the engineer has a wealth of knowledge and Brad Allen Williams brought in his twenty guitars and fifty amps.  Slowly but surely, I became more interested in doing this sort of Miles Davis style of recording like, “Hey Herbie, check out that Wurlitzer over there.  Check out that Rhodes.” and they’re like, “What do I do with this?”  I never want to get away from the spirit of jazz.  A feeling of creative people in the room and jamming on an idea and capturing the moment (snaps his fingers). It was fulfilling, but challenging because now you have seven decisions and seven votes on every single note and sound. Every note and sound was curated and fought for.  I’d never really done a band album.  This has been my touring band for a minute and I’m very proud of them.  We have done something special.  I wanted to take that energy and document it in this album.  I want to push these guys and myself as hard and as far as I can.  A lot of people don’t see that in me, but it was time for that to happen.  So, it was really like, “we’re doing this album, yo I got an idea check this out.”  Then Solomon would put a bridge to it.  Then at sound check, Kris is playing (he hums synth sounds), and the drummers like “ba dong dong bap!” and I’m recording with my phone.  So we used sound checks for a lot of stuff and then we’d go into the studio and lay it down.  We’d all play together, do a scratch vocal and then step back, get a take we like and then strip it back.  Then we built it up like pop.  For example, “Trouble” had ten tracks to mix.  The title track of “While You Were Sleeping” had one hundred and fifty tracks to mix.  It was a beast.  Again, when it’s all said and done, it was too pop for the  jazz people and too jazz for the pop people.

TAON:  Were you afraid you were going too fast, too far, or alienating your fans- leaving them behind?

JJ:  Everybody was.  It was on everybody’s mind.  I’m not doing this to be famous.  If I was, I would’ve made a lot of different choices.  I’ll never forget I did a Giant Step show with Janelle Monet and Jamie Lidell and it was fascinating to see how we all were.  It was crazy because Monet hadn’t blew up yet and she wasn’t headlining. Jamie Lidell was.  That’s how fast things move.  Ralph Ellison once said, “If artists think about what critics want from them, they’ve already lost, artistically.”  So, if I did No Beginning No End 2, people would be like, “it sounds like the last one.  He doesn’t have any new ideas.”  It’s a double edge sword.

TAON:  We’re living in very strange times.  As a vivid and prolific writer, your messages seem to be grounded in spirituality, sensuality, blues, deep introspection and desire.  Why do these emotions compel you so much in your music along with your progressive messages of love?

JJ:  I think it gets complicated when you start making the distinction between art and entertainment.  There is an art to being an entertainer, but I think there are fine lines all over the place the closer you get with a magnifying glass.  Like Meshell N’degeocello who’s like, “this is what I am.”  I’m a pure artist. I don’t really care about commerciality.  That’s a hard question to answer.  I feel that people change.  For me, it’s being true to my gift. I think everybody’s gift has conditions, and mine are different from other people.  I know if I misuse my gift, it’s going to leave.  I spoke to Leon Ware about this.  He was like, “I know who you are.  I was just like you.  You love jazz, come from jazz.  You wanna make everything more complicated with the voicings, you want to seduce, but man, things have changed.  There’s no seduction anymore.”  To me, art is seduction.  There’s nothing personally interesting about talking about the club, sticking it in you, a million dollars on my wrist, blah, blah blah.  It makes money.  I don’t think that’s going to last. I want to make art that lasts.  I want somebody to put on The Dreamer in thirty years and say this dude was about something.


TAON:  The title of this issue, America’s New Winter is based on the metaphor of social climate found in Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s critically acclaimed 1974 album Winter In America.  Forty years later, do you feel that we are still enduring a winter in America?

JJ:  I don’t think we’re in a winter.  I think we’re in a global warning.  Everything is backwards.  Everything is hidden in plain sight.  We’re in a post-racial, post sexist society now.  It’s crazy.  I recently played Israel.  I went to Tel Aviv.  A lot of people were saying I shouldn’t go.  I shouldn’t support it.  It’s not safe.  First of all, I’m neutral.  Second of all,  the place I feel I’m going to get shot at is here.  I’m boycotting Florida for the safety of myself and my band.  Politically, the most dangerous place for me to exist is right here (in America).  For people to come at me for doing peaceful work, in a place that needs it, instead of talking about issues, it’s confusing.  It’s not winter. Winter is stark.  Winter is real.  Now,  it’s a whole other thing.  Obama is giving people healthcare and people want to vote him out. They love the healthcare but hate the man.  It’s pure insanity.  In regards to climate, you don’t know what’s coming next.

TAON:  Esoterically and ethereally, you remind some people of Gil Scott-Heron and his persistence of truth.  Even down to the novelist approach in your music.  How did Gil affect you growing up listening to his music and poetry?

JJ:  That’s interesting because my main mentor is a poet from Chicago named Louis Alemayehu.  He has a band called Ancestor Energy in Minneapolis and he was the one who really radicalized me.  Him, along with (saxophonist) Donald Washington who is James Carter’s mentor from Detroit.  They introduced me to Sun Ra, Archie Shepp and Alice Coltrane.  I thought I was hip because I knew about Coltrane.  But that was only the beginning of the Black Arts Movement which has really been marginalized majorly.  I was influenced by authors like James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks and Sonya Sanchez… so Gil was one of the few who really broke through and got some hits along with The Last Poets.  He’s the reason why I’m here, really.  He was never confined to one world.  There’s a looseness about his work that I admired.  They call it spoken word now, but it was somewhere in between.  He’s a griot, and that is a dangerous place to be in America!

I’m a grounded artist.  I’m doing the Billie Holiday tribute album.  It’s her one hundredth birthday.  To me, she is one of the greatest jazz singer who ever lived.  That’s what I want to do.  That’s how I want to spend my time as a singer and a performer.  But everyone’s going to be talking about Frank Sinatra instead because it’s also his one hundredth birthday.  They were born the same year.  But she died tragically young.  Frank went on to fame and fortune.  He adored her.  I want people to think of me like that.  It’s hard because I’m a vocalist and a front man, people think they know me.  A lot of people said I let them down with this last album.  I’m an artist.  It’s never going to be the same.  I’m giving you an experience.  I’m working hard to assemble the best musicians in the world.  I’m giving you my best, night after night, that’s what I’m here to give.   –


Photos:  Tiana Anderson

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