Harlem Stage Gatehouse
Saturday, February 11
Better than: Ever.
What better way to see in the pre-Valentine’s Day weekend, a warm-up for the designated 24 hours our culture sets aside for Love, than to enjoy the supple outpourings of Jose James? For two nights last weekend, the Yankee-hatted jazz vocalist and his bold, sensitive musicians debuted his fourth album No Beginning, No End at the Harlem Stage at the Gatehouse. Approaching well-deserved acclaim for its 30th Anniversary of programming artists who nudge the radar, the Gatehouse glowed with warmth and intimacy. Intriguing projections and soft lighting on the golden brick walls of the 1890 Romanesque edifice (a former water pumping station) gave us the the sensation of being suspended in amber—a great setting for a soiree of incandescent artistry.
In olden days, sheer gravity helped the Gatehouse, set high on the rock of Manhattan, to send water gushing down to the city below. That embedded energy seemed still at work as the weight of James’s creative legacy, a debt he loves to honor, flowed though him. A man who can croon and scat and fly his vocal with hummingbird wings, James is secure enough to work with genres as different as classic jazz and electronica—Flying Lotus is a friend—with authenticity every time. He recently worked on “Facing East,” a Belgian project channeling John Coltrane.
The audience appeared to know all this. What wIth the threat of snow, the dress code was Best Sweaters and Jeans; but the room was packed with couples and neo-familial groupings of all varieties, ready to be led and responding fully to James as each track touched on another level of love.
Minneapolis-born James claims he joined his Catholic school choir to meet girls, but he shone at Vivaldi. His charm and skills soon catapulted him into the musician’s life. Before the show, James said, “When the student is ready, the master appears.” He was talking about No Beginning, No End‘s collaborators—R&B songwriter supreme Leon Ware, a frequent Marvin Gaye collaborator; guitarist Pino Palladino, who’s played with D’Angelo, among others. (Voodoo is a touchstone for James’s current feel.)
Onstage, James is rubbery and relaxed, with the sexy-scrawny frame of Frank SInatra and the debonair twinkle of Nat King Cole. The voyage began with the vamping, brooding “It’s All Over Your Body”; “I won’t stay if you wanna go,” James pleaded, his yearning. punctuated by Takuya Kuroda’s snazzy trumpet and Corey King’s meditative trombone.
The music went deeper with “Sword And Gun,” a plea for peace riding on Nate Smith’s martial drumming and an oportunity for all the musicians to solo. Brit Grant Windsor’s keyboards took the crowd on an escapade, and the song closed with a long volley of percussive clapping from James, duelling with Smith’s shakers, like flamenco heard through a waterfall. Someone cried “Nice!” as James launched into his emotional hit of last summer, “Trouble,” which he’d told me was his tribute to Sam Cooke, Al Green and Marvin Gaye. A neighbor groaned, “I’m really feeling this one right now.”
James sparred with two special guests. All in black, “Come To My Door” co-author Emily King bounded on stage with her guitar and prowled to James like a panther, intense, raw and direct. She challenged James, and their dizzying harmonies had the audience tracking notes like tennis balls at the U.S. Open. Taylor McFerrin, beatboxing son of Bobby, appeared on “Park Bench People,” James’s take on a track by London’s Freestyle Fellowship. Again, James leapt into a duel, his scatting spiralling among McFerrin’s storm of textures.
Another Marvin Gaye accolade, “Bird of Space,” took James into film noir. Softly swishing drums and Solomon Dorsey’s languorous bass underlined James’s yearning, “Did you know I was lonely? Did you dream of loving me?”
Love reigned when the musicians segued into “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” as James exclaimed, “It’s Valentine’s Day weekend! Let’s show some respect for Nancy Wilson!”—who famously delivered that Roberta Flack song.
As the night ended, James said, “People who know me know I like to pay tribute to masters who came before.” The presence of ancestors like Flack, Wilson, Gaye and Coltrane—nodding approvingly at how James wears their mantle, lightly and with grace—was felt deeply.
Critical bias: Always fun to watch great artists improvise.
Overheard: “I’m coming back tomorrow.”
Random notebook dump: James unfurled his voice like a lurex banner in the breeze.
It’s All Over Your Body
Sword and Gun
Trouble/Save Your Love
Come To My Door (w/Emily King)
Park Bench People (w/Taylor McFerrin)
Bird of Space
No Beginning, No End
Do You Feel