JOSE JAMES at the Great Hall, Friday, March 2. Rating: NNN
Soulful Brooklyn vocalist José James's approach to reinventing jazz singing for a hip-hop world keeps the genre's improv aspect front and centre while wrapping it with heavy soul rhythms and melodies.
Backed by bass, Rhodes electric piano and a drummer, he comes across as smooth, confident and supremely laid-back. He's long had his routine down to a crowd-pleasing science, and as a result, his Toronto fan base grows every time he comes through town.
The drawback to this well-defined identity is that over the course of a full set it starts sounding formulaic. Yes, imitating turntable tricks with your voice as a substitute for a scatting is a great trick, but it loses power when applied to every jam.
Likewise, flipping a hip-hop groove into a jazz shuffle is highly effective the first time but suffers from diminished returns after that. James is inarguably one of the most talented jazz-inspired vocalists taking the form in new directions, but he's a little too comfortable at the top.