JOSE JAMES QUARTET performing as part of the Toronto Jazz Festival at the Supermarket (268 Augusta), Friday (June 27). $15, advance $10. tojazz.com. Rating: NNNNN
The majority of contemporary jazz singers fall into one of two categories: those who stick with the American songbook classics and those who believe the standard repertoire should include the Motown catalogue, bossa nova tunes and any Beatles song not written by Ringo.
Brooklyn-based baritone José James is a special case. The rising star is among the precious few young talents on the scene with a deep knowledge of the standards and an abiding respect for tradition who aren’t content to retrace the giant steps of their forebears.
That was clear the first time I heard James singing his own lyrics to John Coltrane’s Equinox and transforming it into a prayer for racial harmony. The poise and maturity of his delivery was striking for someone just out of New York’s New School. Evidently, influential BBC radio personality Gilles Peterson was impressed enough with James’s ballsy update to sign him to the Brownswood label.
“I didn’t know this when I sent Gilles Peterson my demo, but his two favourite John Coltrane songs are Wise One and Equinox,” says James. “He gets literally hundreds of demos every week, and the only reason he listened to mine was that he saw Equinox on the song list. He put it on and was blown away to hear a young artist interpreting Coltrane’s work with a sort of Leon Thomas vibe. He wanted to release my stuff as ?is right away.”
In January, Brownswood issued James’s magnificent debut disc, The Dreamer, announcing the arrival of an important new voice in the jazz world. The arrangements and production are beautifully understated, allowing James to work his lyrical magic in a sophisticated soul-?jazz style that recalls Andy Bey’s featured work on Gary Bartz’s Harlem Bush Music projects.
What’s conspicuously absent from The Dreamer album are James’s amazing reworkings of Equinox and Resolution, which caused quite a stir last year when 10-inch white-label test pressings began to circulate on the down-low.
“We wanted to be really respectful, even though we knew that if we asked for permission from the Coltrane estate we probably wouldn’t get it, because Brownswood isn’t Blue Note. So we sent our request to Universal publishing, where they asked to see a copy of the lyrics. It was the day before we were scheduled to go to the pressing plant when we got word that they would not allow any vocal renditions.”
While James tries to downplay the setback, not being able to use the two Coltrane songs on his debut disc must’ve been devastating for both him and Peterson. Not only were the tunes key calling cards that would help introduce the relatively unknown vocalist to serious jazz fans, but the scheduled release date for the album had to be postponed while James wrote and recorded replacement tunes. With the game on the line and the clock ticking, James came through with what proved to be his three finest compositions on the album.
“I had to go back into the studio and write three new songs in two weeks, which was nerve-racking for me because I don’t typically work that fast. But I wrote Desire, Winter Wind and Velvet, which is actually a Coltrane song (Compassion from 1965’s Meditations) in disguise. I just refashioned the melody and changed the chords slightly. I thought, ‘Heh heh, I’m gonna get some Coltrane on this album one way or another.’
“In retrospect, I’m really happy with the way it all worked out. Gilles loved the new material, and I got to meet and record with the producer Flying Lotus, aka Steve Ellison, who’s actually Alice Coltrane’s nephew. The first song we did together, Visions Of Violet, just came out on the B-side of my Park Bench People single, and we’ve already done three new songs for my next album.”
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