Minneapolis expat José James on Blue Note Records and his most cherished influences

Vocalist-songwriter José James gives brand new and improved meaning to the old saying "local boy makes good."

The North Minneapolis native is a global success, having performed on prestigious stages all over the world, including North Sea Jazz Festival, Victoria Jazz Festival, Billboard Live Tokyo, Centro Cultural São Paolo, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Central Park Summerstage in New York City and London's Royal Festival Hall. His 2008 debut The Dreamer (Brownswood), charted at number 21 in Jazz Times's Top 50 and has been impressing critics and amazing listeners on disc ever since, following  BLACKMAGIC (Brownswood),  For All We Know (Verve/Impulse!)—winner of the Edison Award and L’Académie du Jazz Grand Prix for best Vocal Jazz Album—and this year's No Beginning No End (Blue Note). For good measure, James has made guest appearances on releases by the likes of the Junior Mance Trio, Jazzanova, Nicola Conte, Basement Jaxx, and Chico Hamilton, For All We Know actually being a collection of standards done in duet with acclaimed Belgian pianist Jef Neve

Not too shabby for someone who only turned 35 in January, if you consider how long it takes even the best musicians to get any place of note at all in the stubbornly discriminating world of jazz. The evening before jetting off on his current national tour, which brought him through the Twin Cities that week at Cedar Cultural Center (January 29), James gave a telephone interview, discussing his craft and heritage.

Blue Note Records, for ages, has a reputation as being a label for jazz purists. Folk who listen to, like, Pharoah Sanders, Wes Montgomery and so on. How does it feel to come along and be part of a contemporary wave that expands that groove?

It's amazing. I was looking through Blue Note album covers today. Just lookin' at the journey from 1939, the early stuff. Ike Quebec, all the classics. Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell. And the crazy 70s covers. Just thinking about that legacy. First of all, it's a huge honor. There is sort of a purist thing about it, but there's a [lot] of stuff in the 70s that people don't remember, too, that was pretty funky. There was a lot of funky music. There was, like, Alfred Lion's classic Blue Note that was all about modern jazz and composers. As long as he was involved, you had [for instance] Dexter Gordon and Fred Powell.

You're talking the be-bop. Charlie Parker and them.

Yeah, be-bop. Then, as the label got older, funk and disco came in. Grant Green, Stanley Turrentine. And more vocal stuff. But it was still jazz. It was still great music. [Under] Bruce Lundvall.

Who?

He was the president of Blue Note until recently. He's the one that signed Norah Jones and set off all the controversy in the 1990s.

Who've been your influences so far as writing melodies? Wait, let's back up. You've been called the Smokey Robinson for the hip-hop generation, compared to Gil Scott-Heron. Do you feel those comparisons overlook your originality?

I love those guys. But, they're not necessarily, like, influences. To me, my influences are, you know, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane and Marvin Gaye. That's the school of music that I'm comin' from.

That is a very interesting school. How did you come up with that?

Well, Billie, I've been listening to her my whole life. She's my earliest musical memory. She always fascinated me. And Marvin, I relate to him, 'cause he started in jazz. He brought back class [in the style of] Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra. He wanted to be that. But instead, he did soul. He's my favorite male singer of all time. And Coltrane was the one that helped me understand that music is, like, a spiritual pathway. Y'know? Those are the three artists that inspired me the most.

Clearly, you don't just cite these immortals. You truly experience them.

Yeah, absolutely. They're very important in my life. I wouldn't be here without them. It's like I can feel their spirit, y'know?

Read Dwight Hobbes's review of No Beginning No End (January 2013).

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Dwight Hobbes's picture
Dwight Hobbes

Dwight Hobbes (dwight [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.