José James didn’t just sing during his homecoming concert at the Cedar on January 29, he spoke his mind. And he delivered on the wish that most concertgoers have when they go to see a promising new artist perform. He took them on a journey.
And the audience — among them, friends, family, and mentors who flocked in adoration — witnessed one of 2013’s greatest musical success stories in the making.
James is a renegade artist in the tradition of Prince. He shares a similar musical aptitude that could well make him the next great artist from Minneapolis to take his place in the wide world of music. As James continues to climb creative heights, his musical talents could continue to develop into something unique, innovating, and timeless. The singer is living proof that soulful R&B with jazz sensibilities can be inclusive rather than exclusive and that “real” music still exists.
From the start James’ presence seemed to alter the feel of the room as he appeared laid back, trading in his signature New York Yankees hat for a Twins cap with the letters TC. He launched “It’s All Over Your Body” (which was released as a single), as if he were a seasoned veteran musician. And like a consummate professional, James let his side men shine.
And his very talented band led as much as it followed. They included trumpeter Takuya Kuroda from Japan, bassist Solomon Dorsey from Kansas City, pianist Kris Bowers from Compton, CA and drummer Richard Spaven from London. Spaven has been with James since the two met in London in 2008.
Kuroda has been a part of the group for two years and has known James since their days at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. Dorsey, who assisted on vocals, has been with James for over a year. Bowers, who performed on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, (Roc-A-Fella Records/Roc Nation/Def Jam Recordings) has worked with James for a few years.
James sang a total of nine songs that included two encore tunes. He delivered “Trouble” as strongly as when he performed it on the CBS Late Show with David Letterman a few weeks ago. It seemed to showcase his dynamic vocal range, which may not be in a three- or five-octave range, but has its own complexity.
The artist revealed a glimpse of his personal creative process by telling the crowd that “Trouble” spoke to him by way of the bass line, first and foremost. He urged artists in the audience to pay attention to those kinds of moments.
Another highpoint of the concert was “Vanguard,” the song James wrote with Blue Note label mate and pianist/composer Robert Glasper, which highlighted the cohesion of the group. Some of the audience members seemed to be familiar with it. And the interplay between Bowers and James showcased the great rapport they had during their adventurous improvising, which seemed to hold the crowd in awe.
What followed were two moving interludes, in which the vocalist sang powerful renditions of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy, Me,” and a rare song that doesn’t receive a lot of attention, “What’s Happening, Brother.”
“Come to My Door,” featured James on guitar, playing music from one of the most potent tracks from his latest album No Beginning No End. Next up was “Do You Feel,” an easy-going song dedicated to his unborn daughter, who is due this spring. It was one of his most soulful songs of the set.
Bowers, the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition winner, took the audience to church with some stirring gospel. Dorsey on bass took a turn on vocals and even scatted a little, while Spaven (known as a hip-hop/electronic drummer) stretched out along with them.
The 30-something artist referred to the Cedar as an “everything place,” while revealing very personal sides of himself, as a person artist and family man. It was apparent that he is still developing his band-leading style and is still trying to find his footing and feel for pacing songs and interacting with his audience.
During the concert, he performed a number of his most familiar tunes early, which in hindsight should have come later in the set, because when he played his more unfamiliar songs near the end some audience members seemed to lose interest. But there was so much more to love about the concert that pacing seemed minor in the grand scheme of things.
The Cedar Cultural Center, a.k.a “the Cedar” located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, is billed as a highly eclectic music venue. The nonprofit club is well known for hosting a wide spectrum of folk, blues, jazz, indie rock and world artists, as well as films, spoken word, dances, and community events.
The Cedar is a converted movie theater which seats nearly 500, and offers concertgoers a feel of small club intimacy. It was recently named Best World Music Venue 2012 at About.com. The Cedar seemed to be the perfect venue for James’ homecoming concert.
James delivered a second encore, “Park Bench People” that was indeed, a show-stopper. There were echoes of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” from Kurdoda as this lively tune twisted and turned into a rap with James freestyling, and sounding as if he were a DJ scratching the words, “I’m a rebel of the treble, not going to sell my soul to the devil, oh, no, never on another level.”
No Beginning No End is James’ debut album for Blue Note Records and his fourth overall. It was released on January 22 and has already received some critical acclaim. He’s also making his way around the late-night television circuit, including an upcoming performance on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno on March 13.
When one considers James’ singing/songwriting abilities and experience, vocal strengths and limitations, his creative capacity and determination, he seems poised to go, but one way: up.
Robin James welcomes reader responses to [email protected]