Music

José James Blends Jazz Balladeering and Modern R&B Into a Tonic for the Times

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A year and a half ago, José James had a plan for his next record. He envisioned a sprawling double album with a yin-and-yang theme — one disc devoted to love, the other to the horror of our times: racism, police violence, economic injustice. It would channel outrage and offer comfort, and it would be called Love in a Time of Madness.

An elegant, Brooklyn-based singer, James has cultivated a dual identity that blends old-school jazz balladeering with futuristic r&b. Earlier work such as Blackmagic (2010) had an experimental edge, with spaced-out production from the likes of Flying Lotus, and subsequent projects flitted about, channeling influences from Jimi Hendrix to Al Green. In contrast, 2015’s Yesterday I Had the Blues was pure acoustic jazz, a set of suave Billie Holiday covers with a hotshot trio including pianist Jason Moran.

After touring that album on the small-club circuit, James was ready to break out from the hushed intimacy and go urgent and loud with a big social-justice project. But something got in the way, he says. It was all just too much. The election campaign had begun; the headlines were getting worse and worse. He found that performing Holiday’s work night after night — and specifically one song, “Strange Fruit,” the devastating elegy for the victims of lynching that speaks of burnt flesh and all manner of violence done to black bodies — brought its own kind of exhaustion.

“It was very difficult to not just break down and cry mid-song, which happened a couple of times,” James says. “You’d read something horrible in the news — say, a ten-year-old kid got shot — and to have that be so close and so emotional, it was a lot. And to see the impact it had on other people, people would be leaving the club weeping.”

Maybe, James thought, the social-justice songs he was writing for the “madness” part of his project didn’t need to happen just yet. “As we got into the political season, it was overkill,” he says. “People didn’t need that from me; they were getting it every day. They didn’t need a reminder of Black Lives Matter, a reminder of sexism. They needed a relief. So I abandoned the more overtly political aspect and started to focus on the love. I think the biggest thing I can offer right now is a little sanctuary.”

The soul music of the 1970s has always been a touchstone for James, and in that same tradition, Love in a Time of Madness expresses love in all its forms. There is affirming, sex-positive funk (“Live Your Fantasy”), comfort in commitment (“Always There”), the desperation of conflict (“What Good Is Love”), and the weird accounting and resolution that follows a fling (the standout “Last Night,” louche and woozy). There is, too, love that’s sanctified: Gospel singer Oleta Adams appears on the closing duet, “I’m Yours.”

“A lot of my love songs in the past have had a rose-tinted-glasses vibe, and that’s cool too,” says James, who firmly established his romantic credentials on his 2013 major-label debut, No Beginning No End, and its follow-up, While You Were Sleeping. “But I’ve been through a lot of love and loss, a lot of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll on the road. This is a broader, more realistic look at love and relationships.”

With James a father and nearing forty, the album also reads as a kind of stock-taking, a turning of the page. But if he’s looking back on parts of his life, his music is moving in a new direction. James was never all-retro; the new deconstructive r&b, with its glitchy soundscapes, has long lurked in his work. But his old-soul baritone and his record on the jazz side of the ledger, including work with elders such as McCoy Tyner and current masters like Moran, has marked him as a balladeer. (So does his contribution to the just-released Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, a concise version of the standard “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” that echoes Frank Sinatra, one of James’s vocal influences.)

This time is different. Some of the most compelling songs (“Last Night,” “You Know I Know,” “Closer”) stand out for grimy, staccato beats and electronics that offer a sharp contrast to the acoustic canvas of James’s last outing. “I’m obsessed with Drake and all the kids,” he says, citing Kehlani and The Internet as well. “There’s something magical there. Right now my heart is definitely into more electronic stuff and seeing how far we can push this sound and this expression.” Elsewhere, the vibe is classic but the exercise is new — for instance on “Ladies Man,” a very late-Seventies disco-funk jam on which James sings higher than we’ve known him to, holding a falsetto with ease.

The Bay Area producer Tario, who has worked with Miguel and Flo Rida and was James’s main collaborator on this album, says the slippery, effects-rich “Closer” was the first demo he shared with James; it set the tone for the project. “He’s got a beautiful, very distinctive jazz voice,” says Tario. “Meshing it with r&b, more trappy drums here and there, even the funk stuff — everything meshed together so well.”

The album benefits, too, from James’s decision to take himself back to school — the singer worked with a voice teacher, Jim Carson, to expand his technique. “Moving into r&b, I wanted more top range, more flexibility,” James says. “He totally changed my technique, and I think you can hear it. I’m way more confident, singing in ways I’ve never sung before. It’s very relaxed; you’re never stressing or straining for anything.”

As for those social-justice songs he was working on, James is keeping them in his back pocket. The way things are going, an intervention in the spirit of Curtis Mayfield or Gil Scott-Heron may be needed soon enough. “It’s looking that way,” James says. “The only good thing about times of strife is that amazing music and social rebellion happens.”