José James could best be described as a musical presence, rather than simply an artist. He’s done everything from latin to hip hop, from jazz to soul, and he’s done it extremely well. His voice is nothing short of classic, and his band is one of the tightest in the business. So what happens when the first show of his 2014 tour features music from his forthcoming album, While You Were Sleeping, a bona fide rock project?
After warming up an intimate crowd with a soulful opener, James introduced his project and keyboardist Kris Bowers dished out some sizzling warm keyboard oscillation. “If you ain’t trying to make babies to this song, y’all better leave,” joked James. The title track of James’ new project, “While You Were Sleeping” unabashedly evokes the acoustic rock goodness of Nirvana’s “Oh Me”. It cannot be ignored that José James is the king of making the works of his musical influences his own, be it borrowing Freddy Hubbard’s chef d’oeuvre groove of “Red Clay” for his free-styling backbone, “Park Bench People” (which featured a mind-blowing guitar solo from Brad Williams) or the melody of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” for an interlude on “Trouble” (both of which were rock solid live).
In any case, James’ new sound took some getting used to. Maybe it was that James’ trumpeter, Takuya Kuroda, was missing from the mix (Kuroda is on a tour of his own), or that the band just hasn’t had enough time with the new material. Don’t get me wrong; everything James and his band played was musically interesting, sonically rich and generally killer, which is kind of what we’ve come to expect. One song drew from Buddhist philosophies and featured a jazzy twist on a classic blues structure. Another based on Muslim spiritual culture eschewed funkier rhythms and grooves in favor of crisp synth textures and a distorted, rocking chorus.
Opening for José James was, well, his band. Read: this is a good thing. Led by adroit keyboardist Kris Bowers and joined by ebullient singer Julia Easterlin, the group grooved its way through a diversified set featuring some clever covers of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and The Roots’ “A Piece of Light”. Bowers and company filled a near-empty room with luscious sound and proved that the young jazz world has some new tricks up its sleeve.