José James - Who knows the secret? (Blackmagic Tour)
Yep, this album is so cool. Gilles Peterson (headman at Brownswood) played another couple of tracks from it on his show this week (the beat heavy ‘Made For Love’ and the Sunday soul-jazz of ‘Detroit Loveletter’) so an obvious place to start for this brief encounter with José is to ask him what has been the reaction to Blackmagic as it’s an eclectic collection of jazz and non-jazz tracks, “Really great! People are really excited to hear me go in a new direction and the live show takes it to another level. Especially the Benga cover.”
That’s the one that he’s put lyrics to Benga’s track ‘Emotions’ (and renamed it ‘Warrior’). Its got all the energy of broken beat merged with some crazy jazz-trio backing that James manages to stay on top of (sort of what Christian Prommer did with Drumlesson a while back). So what are his other favourite tracks on the album from a lyrical point of view? “Lyrically I’d have to say ‘Code’ is really fresh - I also love ‘Beauty’.
‘Code’ it the opening track on the album and that’s got a touch of Gil Scott-Heron 70s set up (or am I getting obsessed with him lately) whilst ‘Beauty’ just classic jazz duet which made me ask, who were your early influences as a jazz singer? He mentions “Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday” and whilst we’re on the jazz-giants (and noting his first album The Dreamer featured a version of Roland Rahsaan Kirk’s ‘Spirits Up Above’) who would be in your all-time jazz backing band? “Definitely the classic John Coltrane Quartet - McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.”
You can’t really argue with that and it does make you dream of what could have been but I wonder if he was always into jazz. Another stand out track on The Dreamer was the Freestyle Fellowship’s ‘Park Bench People’ so did you grow up doing old-skool rapping? “Ha ha no. But I was really into De La Soul, the Pharcyde, Ice Cube, A Tribe Called Quest, all that”.
And by coincidence, the “Godfather of Rap” has just released a new album (Gil Scot-Heron’s I’m New Here at the same time as Blackmagic) and he’s another that’s gone down the non-jazz road, “I heard it’s really interesting. I haven’t heard it yet though. I’m glad he’s back out with a new album and touring again; he’s got a lot of fans waiting.”
James has teamed up with Bobby McFerrin’s son Taylor for the ‘jazz’ tracks and I’d had to ask if there was an ‘experimental’ projects a la McFerrin Snr got into lined up? “Right now I have my Facing East: The Music of John Coltrane Project. That’s a big project that combines arranging, looping, writing lyrics, and singing with a full band. I think there’s lots of ways to expand the concept of what a jazz vocalist is.” Wow! Do we like the sound of that. In fact the last track on the album is a sort of downtempo spiritual skat-freestyle that gets me every time I hear it. So how did you meet Taylor McFerrin?
“I met him in NY doing Giant Step shows and thought he was dope. Then he got involved in my night at Nublu in the East Village [as in Forro In The Dark?], which I ran for a year. We both took the same NY-Singapore flight to do the Worldwide Festival with Gilles and we shared some tracks. I was almost done with the album by that point and he played me what became ‘Love Conversation’. It was amazing and I had it written and recorded with Jordana de Lovely in NY by the next week. One of the best tracks on the album.”
I’d say. And Gilles Peterson says that ‘Love Conversation’ is his favourite! So how do you meet Gilles Peterson? “I was in London doing a vocal jazz competition and had brought my EP. Gilles had a residency at Cargo in East London and one of the copies got to him. The timing was perfect - he asked me to drop a track on the first compilation on Brownswood [Brownswood Bubblers Vol 1] then asked me to join the label. It was a dream come true generally” And you’ve come a long way in a short time? “Thanks to my fans and friends, DJ community, music community. You made it happen. Now it’s worldwide!”
Another producer on the album Simbad is on at the Brownswood gig (the day after the interview at London’s East Village, see HERE) but James won’t be turning up “No, I’m on tour but I’m working on a track his new album.” That reminded me of the ‘Little Bird’ José did with Jazzanova, but the clock was ticking so his choice of NY-London clubs? “I like to go to Deity in Brookyn for Ge-ology’s night [Heavy, Deep, Funky Music] and anything Giant Step does is good. In London I like Plastic People.” And to chill out, “I like to go to Central Park in NY, or Hampstead Heath in London.”
Well he won’t be going to either for a while “I’m so busy this year. We’re doing the Blackmagic tour now for 2 months (that starts tonight, see dates below), then I’m releasing a new album on Impulse called For All We Know and this summer I’m doing my Coltrane Project live.”
Coltrane Project! Impulse! So there’s loads of jazz to come but tracks like ‘Blackmagic’ and ‘Love Conversation’ are as much jazz to us as ‘No Tellin’ or ‘Beauty’. I can’t get enough of it myself (for the full review of Blackmagic see HERE) and hopefully by the time he gets back to London for the Jazz Café gigs this time next month, I’ll be albe to do the interview properly.
Thanks to all the guilty parties that made this happen, you know who you are; but tonight, I feel like dancin’, love Blackmagic - the love album.
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