The melodic, smooth jazz of Jose James is a breath of fresh air.
Sans the hyper-sexual macho histrionics that most male singers latch onto these days, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter has created a wonderfully artful debut in “The Dreamer,” one of the best albums to hit the streets this year. Though a young performer, James has amassed a loyal following around the world that reaches from Asia to Europe – and it’s clear why after one listen to his work.
Recorded in New York, the album is a classy, refined foray into the minimalist, quartet-based jazz pioneered by the likes of the two legends the singer refers to as his musical parents – John Coltrane and Billy Holiday. Lean and meticulous without being self-indulgent, the Brooklyn-based crooner’s maiden voyage is a peaceful one, boasting smart arrangements and meditative lyrics. At times James evokes an “Art of Tea”-era Michael Franks, as his relaxed vocal approach effortlessly nestles itself into the album’s smokey soundscapes. Such restraint is what makes the album effective.
James wrote a good portion of the material showcased here and the intimacy of his readings shows it. The beautiful title track is a heartfelt paean to Martin Luther King Jr. in which James weaves his billowy baritone through a mournful, transcendent trumpet, while the bossa-nova tinged “Red” reflects on a love lost amid insistent bass and ivory tickling. And the odes to love “Winterwind” and “Blackeyedsusan” boast what in my view are the most beautiful piano solos on the album, creating definitive moments for the collection. Elsewhere, his take on Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People” fuses some hip-hop edge and social commentary into the mix, a nice touch that serves as a reminder that jazz does not have to be void of youth.
And that is what makes this record work. It’s a jazz outing first and foremost, yet it is not so heady that a young lover of R&B or dare I say, hip-hop, can’t get into it. A contemporary incarnation of the dying art-form that is live music, “The Dreamer” is an album primed for acceptance by bohemians and buppies alike. The reach of an excursion this good is plain limitless.
My verdict: James is a funky poet on the fast track to becoming one of this generation’s breakout talents. “The Dreamer” is likely just the beginning.