José James needed to get something off his chest. He was a little more than halfway through his lively 90 minute set Thursday night at The Bowery Ballroom, where he eased through a collection of songs mainly from his terrific new album, Love In the Time of Madness, an unapologetically R&B effort.
“You know what,” he said in his quiet storm baritone, “I love New York, man, cause you guys fucking get it….The response has been totally amazing. My fans are totally rocking with me on this new development, and I want to say thank you for that, because it means a lot. And the only people who haven’t really been are a couple of jazz journalists who just want everything to stay like it’s 1957 in their imagination. Cause when black people think about 1957, no motherfucker wants to go back to that shit. ‘Oh, you mean when Miles Davis got his fuckin’ head split open by a white cop outside of Birdland, yeah, let’s go back to that.’ ”
Yes, there were, and still are, those police—at one point in the show, James sampled Richard Pryor from 1974 repeating, “Cops put a hurtin’ on your ass, man, they really degrade you”—but he was also alluding to the jazz police, that diffuse, unlicensed brigade—plainclothesmen, if you will—that decide who, and what, is legitimate. (Miles in 1957, yes; Miles in 1975, not so much.) They used to be critics, but today—being there are few paid critic gigs—they are historians, educators, or institution heads. They can be festival organizers and label execs. Some are even musicians. They tell you who’s a sell-out (while their rent or mortgage is secure). They are Damien Chazelle characters.
The singer’s frustration with the jazz police—my words, by the way, not his—is understandable. He happens to be an excellent singer, and a versatile one, who can sing jazz, and sing it awfully well, but also soul, R&B, and pop, even rock as in “Anywhere U Go,” from his 2014 record While You Were Sleeping. What should be a blessing is, to some apparently, a curse. (Call it the curse of George Benson.)
James’s last album, Yesterday I Had the Blues, a tribute to Billie Holliday on the centenary of her birth, was a jazz record, and a fantastic one, where James was backed by the substantial rhythm section of Jason Moran, John Patitucci, and Eric Harland. When I last saw him live, in May of 2015 at Harlem Stage, where he sang from that release, he told the audience that he learned about jazz through hip-hop samples—which seems like a perfectly fine gateway—and said, “It was all cool, cool black music.”
James was born in 1978 in Minneapolis—he has the style of a Chuck Foreman spin move—but his sensibility feels early ’80s New York, where many of us grew up on radio stations like BLS and KTU before we discovered BGO and KCR. You sense James’s latest, which could’ve been produced by, say, a Maurice White circa 1984, would’ve had consistent play on Hal Jackson’s WBLS Sunday classics as well as Vaughn Harper’s show, ’round about 1 in the morning.
On Thursday, besides being joined by the dancer Maisha Morris on “To Be With You”—“y’all didn’t know you were going to get some art up in this motherfucker”—he was accompanied by only the superlative Nate Smith, a one-man band on drums and programming who has a thoughtful new release of his own, Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere, with jazz musicians like Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke, and Gretchen Parlato.
Two highlights from James’s new album are duets—“Let It Fall,” with Mali Music, and “I’m Yours,” with the gospel singer Oleta Adams—a reminder of the vitality of the vocal tandem in classic R&B. (Think Marvin and Tammi; Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack; Rick James and Teena Marie; heck, even Rick James and Smokey). At the show, James managed to pull these off by himself, the former while he went down on ballroom floor, among the standing-room audience. He ended the show by picking up an electric guitar for an inventive interpretation of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.” (Cool black music again.)
Earlier, he shared another story, this one about the recently-deceased songwriter-producer Leon Ware, whom he had spent some time with. “He looked at me,” James recalled, “and he said, ‘I know you, man. I was just like you. You’re just like me. I love jazz, too. I started in jazz. Marvin [Gaye] started in jazz. We all love that, man, but I see something else in you. I just want you to think about that. You don’t have to do nothing with it right now, but I just want you to think about that.’ ” James paused. “And now he’s gone. So I’m thinking about it, y’all. I’m thinking about it. And that’s all I got to say about that.”
The crowd cheered. If the jazz police were there, undercover, they remained silent.