José James is a skilled vocalist known for mixing jazz and hip-hop — and nobly refusing to permanently pledge allegiance to either. Before the release of this year’s “No Beginning No End,” his fourth album and Blue Note debut, the Minneapolis native said he’d “decided I didn’t want to be considered a jazz singer anymore, and that was really freeing.” Just a few years earlier, he responded to those who labeled him as a fusionist and experimentalist by maintaining that his sound was still “jazz with a capital ‘J.’ ”
Through that sort of back and forth (which comes off as neutrality) and his sheer talent, James’s music has helped do away with stereotypes about both jazz and hip-hop. In his hands, it’s clear that anyone who sees modern jazz as rigid and impermeable, something that should be pure and uninfluenced by outside sounds, is misguided. Ditto those who still think that hip-hop is an art form that “takes” and reworks, rather than influences and creates.
James certainly didn’t create hip-hop/jazz fusion, but he is an effective, likable ambassador for the sound. At the Birchmere on Friday night, his rich voice brought cohesion to an array of styles — not just the two he is most often associated with, but everything from Berber music to ’70s soul. The singer came to the stage like a soul man, wearing black jeans, T-shirt and shades, talking and letting the band vibe for several minutes before letting loose his first note. He maintained that vibe with “No Beginning No End” standout “It’s All Over Your Body,” which boasts Anthony Hamilton-like vocals and an Art Blakey-inspired drum line.
On the “anti-violence, anti-gun” piece “Sword + Gun,” written with French-Moroccan artist Hindi Zahra, the keyboard takes on the qualities of a lute, and toward the end of the piece, the band members put down their instruments and carry the melody with a canon of hand claps.
James used “Trouble” as an opportunity to show just how close scatting and scratching are, his voice sputtering and skipping around with great control, like a DJ mixing on turntables. James and his band, which includes transcendent horn player Takuya Kuroda, didn’t exactly give an encore (“You can pretend we walked off stage, y’all clapped and we walked back out,” he instructed the audience), but they did end on an appropriate note. On “Park Bench People,” from 2008’s “The Dreamer,” James was in Gil Scott-Heron mode over a familiar instrumental. Jazz listeners would’ve heard it as Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” and hip-hop fans would’ve recognized it as A Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka [Expletive].” Both would be right.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.