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New & Next: Jose James on Finding His Own Musical Path on New Album, the Fate of Jazz Singers

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Jose James
Photo Credit: Janette Beckman

Jazz aficionados are already familiar with the majestic baritone of singer Jose James. But now, the Minneapolis-bred son of a jazz saxophonist who has previously released three albums, is ready to shed the label of “jazz singer” as he switches to soul music and channels idols like Marvin Gaye and Al Green on his latest album, No Beginning No End. James had lots to say about why he thinks jazz singers are pigeonholed, paying tribute to Marvin Gaye, and finally getting to celebrate his love of hip hop.

ESSENCE.com: Let’s talk about you saying you want to get away from being considered a jazz singer.
JOSE JAMES: [Laughs] Well, how much time you got? It’s a really complicated thing, and I’ve been thinking about it my entire career. To make a long story short, in the U.S. if you are considered a jazz singer that just limits your market severely. It means you’re not gonna get the attention that you want, especially if you’re doing straight-up jazz. I’ve been blessed to work with the likes of McCoy Tyner and Chico Hamilton. So, I feel like, in terms of being a part of Black music, I’ve touched greatness, and now it’s time for me let people know the fullness of my expression. If I marketed myself as a jazz singer on this album, it would really confuse people. They’d say, ‘Well, it’s not jazz.’ I love singing jazz. It’s always in my heart, but like Al Green and Marvin Gaye had to—I have to step into some new places.

ESSENCE.com: Do you think jazz, as a genre, has been lost to the younger generation?
JAMES: I feel like you have a lot of segregation going on musically in the U.S. I can think about a lot of young Black artists, like Ben Williams and Gregory Porter, who are doing great music based in jazz and reaching a lot of people. But I feel like it’s more complicated now and artists like Robert Glasper are the ones to tackle it because, you know, jazz as an industry has had a very difficult time embracing hip-hop. That’s a very racial issue. For me, jazz has always incorporated the musical developments that happened at the time. Latin music, soul music, rock. And so when it got up to hip-hop, everything was put on the brakes. I’ve spoken to a lot of older jazz musicians, and they just feel like hip-hop is not real music. So, I feel like that more than anything is the divide. It’s interesting because when I play France, and all over Europe, kids come out. They just want to hear good music.

ESSENCE.com: Tell us more about No Beginning No End.
JAMES: It’s been a real labor of love. It took a solid two years, the longest I’ve ever worked on any project. I feel very fulfilled. I took a big risk investing in producing my own album. [Laughs] Just the first recording session with musicians like Robert Glasper, Pino Palldino and Chris Dave cost more than any of my other albums. But the quality…you just can’t hold back on quality. I listen back to the album and hear something new each time. Everything is perfect. I love the sound. It’s really drawn in a lot of love.

ESSENCE.com: How would you describe the album?
JAMES: I would describe it as my musical mind. I’ve reached the point where I’ve thought about, listened to and played so many styles of music. I started out in doo-wop and in the choir, and got into jazz. My first love of music was Prince and Michael Jackson. And then going into hip-hop and loving De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest. Putting all that into one album is something I never thought I could do. And, that’s exactly what happened. This is the sound of my world in 2013. I think Marvin Gaye is a huge influence in terms of the way he never gave up jazz harmonies. He always wanted to sing in a beautiful way, never really shouting too much. He never sounds like he has to impress anybody. He’s my idol in terms of male singers; especially the track “Bird of Space,” which is dedicated to the album “I Want You.”

ESSENCE.com: It sounds like you’ve had the urge to make this album for a long time. What was the catalyst that finally made you want to do it your way?
JAMES: It was running up against the business. On my last label we talked about doing this sort of album, and getting to a new generation. I was talking about working with the likes of [producers] Kareem Biggins and Flying Lotus…then when the economy crashed they said, ‘Okay, eff all that. Now we want you to be a male Diana Krall.’ No disrespect to her, but I had to be true to myself. I was in Paris and went to Saul Williams's house. Cody Chestnutt was in town with his band. So here I am at a dinner at Saul’s house with Cody. Those brothers were like, ‘Man you just need to follow your music, and it's gonna take care of itself.’ They really big brothered me. I love their artistry, and they’ve been doing it longer than me. And here I am.

Jose James’ latest album No Beginning No End is available on iTunes.

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