The Blue Note debut of the pop and jazz singer José James, No Beginning, No End, so resolutely taps into the vein of classic American soul music that he invites impulsive comparison to artists like Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Al Green.
The Minneapolis-born and Brooklyn based James, 33, has been an underground hero of sorts, laying down his analog vocals over digitized electro-grooves on 2008’s excellent (and bass boosted) Dreamer and last year’s Blackmagic, two albums that smartly married jazz to the pulse and beats of hip hop. In between, he briefly detoured for 2010’s deflating “For All We Know” (Impulse!) that paired him with Belgian pianist Jef Neve for a set of jazz standards. Fast-forward to 2013 where James seems to have found his footing by confessing straight up that this album “sums up how I feel about music right now. I don’t want to be confined to any particular style. I decided I didn’t want to be considered a jazz singer anymore and that was really freeing.”
Produced independently and recorded without a contract in place (Blue Note picked it up for distribution after its completion,) the album features some of James’s longtime band mates – drummer Richard Spaven, keyboardist Grant Windsor, trombonist Corey King, trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, and guitarist Jeremy Most. But it’s the collaboration with Grammy® winning pianist Robert Glasper
, bassist Pino Palladino, RG Experiment drummer Chris Dave and guitarist Emily King that clarifies James’s vision where tunes like “Trouble” (a slick Sly Sylvester-like jam) and the low slung funk of
“Vanguard” are filled with keyboard vamps, thickened drum beats and 70’s style bass lines. The gospel fueled “Do You Feel” features up and coming pianist Kris Bowers who takes a magisterial solo, underscored by a pulsating organ that shimmers throughout. For the swift, danceable “Sword + Gun,” the French Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra duets with James on a percussive tune striking for its infectious rhythm and a brightly tuned horn section.
As genres, R&B and soul run deep through American culture, creating experiential and cross-generational touchstones for everyday people. Time will tell whether or not No Beginning, No End will connect the same way for listeners, yet James’s writing and singing surge with confidence and in the end, his musical truths – delivered with soft-edged vocals and innate soulfulness — penetrate all the more deeply for it. (11 tracks; 59 minutes)