Interview: Jose James
by Winston "Stone" Ford
Jose James. If you’re in the “know,” then you realize that he is one of the best new jazz/soul artists of this decade. If you haven’t heard the name, you might have heard his heavy barratone voice if he lived in Europe. As a signee to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings, he released multiple critically acclaimed albums, and he has collaborated with such names as Basement Jaxx, Jazzanova, and Wynon Marsalis. However, for all of his popularity abroad, he still is not recognized in The States.
For those who haven’t had the opportunity, Mr. James will be releasing his newest album, For All We Know, on Universal/Impulse Records this year, and his newest EP Black Magic (buy on iTunes).
To be honest, I thought that you were much older than your years. How did you get into Jazz Music and who were the artists that inspire you?
I first heard jazz when I was 14 in samples by De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Cypress Hill, Rakim, and Ice Cube. Then I started listening to jazz radio – KBEM 88.5 in Minneapolis – and discovered jazz on it’s own. It was deep and beautiful and new and fed my soul, so I started buying records. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington were my first inspirations. Then I got into Billie Holiday and John Coltrane.
You’re very popular outside of the States, touring Europe and Japan. Why do you think your sound has not resonated in the US?
It’s simple marketing. I have plenty of fans in the US, but very small distribution for the Brownswood albums. Until I recently signed to Universal I didn’t have a US label, so that makes a huge difference. Despite that “The Dreamer” was voted #21 Top Jazz Album in 2008 by JazzTimes, and I’m performing at Lincoln Center this fall with Wynton Marsalis and the JALC Orchestra. Obviously Gilles is very influential in EU and Japan, so there you go – it’s marketing.
You have collaborated with some great artists: Basement Jaxx, Jazzanova, Nicola Conte, just to name a few. Which one was your favorite?
Working with Chico Hamilton and Junior Mance – living musical legends – has been the collaborative highlight of my career. But I’ve learned from everyone and put that energy into my music.
Your LP Blackmagic sees you going into more R&B territory with the track “Lay You Down.” Why did you decide to flip up your sound from your jazz roots?
I just write music and record it, I wasn’t thinking “is this R&B,” or whatever. I just don’t think about music like that. I actually recorded that live in studio with a full band and 4 piece horn section echoing Marvin Gaye and Leon Ware’s “I Want You,” with a touch of Q in the horns and chord changes circa “Off the Wall.” It’s the intersection of soul and jazz, which I love.
It’s a wide open global expanse. Artists have power – artists have freedom. On a personal level music has to really mean something to someone for them to pay for it, whether live or recorded.
As someone outside of the “mainstream.” What do you think about music industry today?
Well it’s a wide open global expanse. Artists have power – artists have freedom. On a personal level music has to really mean something to someone for them to pay for it, whether live or recorded. It’s more honest and more difficult. Jazz has always brought the live power anyway so that’s a given. How we react to these changes is up to us.
Finally, what are the top 5 songs that you’re vibing out to on your iPod right now?
“Sing” by FourTet. “Another Day” by Op Swamp 81. “Resolution (live in France)” by John Coltrane Quartet. “Something to Live For” by Ella Fitzgerald with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. “Excalibur” by Oh No.