A TOP RECORDING OF 2015. Singer/songwriter Jose James has a fluid baritone that smolders as much as it seduces. His original albums veer easily from jazz to soul and pop to grinding rock and rhythm and blues, which tells you he’s not especially hemmed in by labels or genre. As a composer and narrator, he croons as a friend, brother, a confidant or a lover. On stage, he works a persona that’s vulnerable and often sensual, with an effortless charisma and natural charm. He’s a connector — which makes him an ideal interpreter of the songs of Billie Holiday.
Yesterday I Had The Blues is a tour-de-force record by a musician who reveals in the liner notes, “her music spoke to me on a much deeper level. Her work was mastery – of pain, of trauma, of faith in music and the power of transformation. I had found my teacher.” That absorption of joy, heartache and the otherwise indescribable quality that made Holiday a timeless performer gives James an edge that’s vacant on most tribute albums to the singer.
Over nine tracks, mostly ballads, the album’s focus is on quality not quantity as James pares things down, relying on a close collaborative process with his pianist, Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer/percussionist Eric Harland – a team of like-minded musicians with astute improvisational skills.
What makes his version of “Good Morning, Heartache” so effective is that James lets the song breathe and take shape as a love letter to one’s own soul. It’s sung delicately and beautifully performed, highlighted by Moran’s slow, shimmering solo. Equally fine, his “Fine And Mellow” is a deep blues tune, dressed with gospel-tinged piano and thick, insistent groove. The wily romp, “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” is the most up-tempo tune, and soulful gems “Lover Man” and “God Bless The Child” sport more modern contours. The record ends with the spiritual “Strange Fruit,” as haunting as ever, the timbre of James’ voice bereft and righteously full of judgment. (9 tracks; 47 minutes)