Jose James: A Broad-Minded Singer Lets The Beat Build

Jan 22, 2013
Originally published on January 22, 2013 6:48 pm

Jose James knows jazz. The son of a Panamanian jazz saxophonist, he studied at the prestigious New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, was a finalist in 2004's Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocalist Competition and recently toured with legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner.

James' past albums notably blend jazz, R&B and soul. But on his latest release, No Beginning No End, the 35-year-old musician demonstrates that his creative process is steeped in the methods of hip-hop.

James says the beat for the song "Trouble" came to him while he was riding the Q train in the New York City subway. So that he wouldn't forget it, he beatboxed it to himself during his 20-minute commute to the studio.

"A lot of people in my generation, we use hip-hop as a tool to compose," James tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And then it's the jazz training that let me turn that into a full song."

James collaborates with French-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra for "Sword + Gun," which weaves percussion with Gnawa — sacred Moroccan music involving string instruments and polyrhythmic clapping. They completed the track by using what James describes as the No. 1 hip-hop compositional tool: sampling.

"Without a band or anything, in about six hours, we had already written a whole song that sounded pretty amazing," he says. "And it was really exciting for me, because I don't think a jazz person would ever walk into a studio without a band — and without a song — to record a track on their album."

This record is a statement for James, who says he aims to shed the label of "jazz singer" and free himself from the confines of genre. (He even produced, recorded and funded the album independently, only later signing with Blue Note.) James says, though, that being exposed to jazz as a child has informed his musical life ever since.

"I think my first musical memory is actually listening to Billie Holiday," James says. "I think I must have been, like, 3 or 4 years old. I can just remember hearing, 'God bless a child that's got his own.' I didn't know what she was singing about, and I actually thought she was saying, 'That's got hizzo,' because of her kind of slangy Baltimore accent. I was like, 'What's hizzo? God bless a child that's got hizzo?' It sounds like some Jay-Z slang now, right? Her voice just kind of made an impression. I feel like her voice has been with me my whole life."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The voice of Jose James snakes and winds and wraps itself around a lyric. The effect is funky and soulful and hypnotic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOSE JAMES: (Singing) (Unintelligible) we've got to try and figure out some kind of way to go, that we know. Traveling with me every time I step around the way and things are slow, so we can let it go.

BLOCK: Jose James is rooted in jazz. He grew up in Minneapolis, the son of a Panamanian jazz saxophonist. He studied jazz at the prestigious New School in New York, was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition in 2004. And a couple of years ago, he toured with the legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMES: (Singing) Trouble me, all my life (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: Now, Jose James is out with a new album titled "No Beginning, No End." He told me this song, "Trouble," started out on the New York City subway, the Q train.

JAMES: I literally just had the intro out and the beat in my head. I was on my way to the studio to write the song, so I just did like a beat box and just was doing it for, like, 20 minutes to myself until I could get to the studio.

BLOCK: So what did it sound like on the subway when you started out?

JAMES: Just (making noise) again and again and again, you know. That's all you need to get the - you know, right there, like, the kind of beat is there, the swagger is there, the key. You know, there's a lot of musical information. And like a lot of people in my generation, we use hip-hop as a - act just as a tool to compose and then it's the jazz training that let me turn that into a full song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE")

JAMES: (Singing) I - I need someone like you to come to spend my (unintelligible) my soul, it's always trouble, trouble, trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble. All my life, baby, call on me to - trouble, trouble, trouble.

BLOCK: Where did your love of jazz come from in the first place?

JAMES: I think my first musical memory is actually listening to Billie Holiday, you know. I think I must have been, like, 3 or 4 years old. I can just remember hearing, "God bless a child that's got his own," which I didn't know what she was singing about, and I actually thought she was saying, That's got hizzo, because of her kind of slangy Baltimore accent. I was like, what's hizzo? God bless a child that's got hizzo?

You know, it sounds like some Jay-Z slang now, right? And her voice just kind of made an impression. I feel like her voice has been with me my whole life. And then, like everybody else, listen to 10,000 Maniacs, Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Tribe Called Quest. And all the '90s hip-hop, even, like, the really hardcore gangster rap had jazz in it. It was upright bass and flute and, you know, being a child of the CD era, they had to list all the sample clearances.

So I'd say, okay, used as a sample by Miles Davis and I'd be like, oh, who's Miles Davis? Who's Roy Aris(ph)? Who's Eric Dolphy(ph)? And that's sort of how the journey began.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMES: (Singing) I won't stay. You want to go. I can't wait for it anymore. And all the time that I used to know is gone away like a river flow. It's all over. It's all over. It's all over for me, my baby.

BLOCK: I'm talking to Jose James. His new album is "No Beginning, No End." One of the songs that I keep coming back to, which has so much going on is a song that features a Moroccan vocalist, Hindi Zahra. It's called "Sword + Gun."

JAMES: This was the first song that I recorded for the album and because of visa issues, it's very difficult for African artists to travel to the U.K. and the U.S. She had like a four-day gap on her tour. She said, Jose, I have four days off in Paris, can you come? So I flew there without a song or a band to do some writing. And we booked a studio and had a little sketch just with this beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMES: Boom, boom, boom. And she really liked that. She said, okay, we don't need a band, like start recording. She grabbed a djimbe(ph) and says, okay, play something. And I started playing (unintelligible) and we actually used the number one hip-hop compositional tool sampling. You know, we sampled ourselves playing the percussion and then she brought in an element of Gnawa music and...

BLOCK: The what music?

JAMES: Gnawa. It's a special, sacred Moroccan music. There's usually one or two-string instruments and a lot of this super-complicated polyrhythmical clapping.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMES: (Singing) Lay down your sword and gun. Lay down your soldiers' arms.

And without a band or anything, in about six hours, we had already written a whole song that sounded pretty amazing. And it was really exciting for me, because I don't think a jazz person would ever walk into a studio without a band and without a song to record a track on their album.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMES: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

I wanted you to feel like you were taking a journey with me on this album and I wanted you to feel like you were taking an adventure through music with me and sort of meeting some of my friends, you know. I feel like we got that with this track.

BLOCK: Well, it's a pretty great adventure.

JAMES: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jose James, it's great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

JAMES: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: You can hear the entire Jose James album, "No Beginning, No End," and more from our interview at NPRMusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.