Around the time Jose James’s sweetly soulful Blue Note Records debut, No Beginning No End, was released, the singer/songwriter said he didn’t want to be a jazz singer anymore. He had recorded a couple of jazz-informed albums, the best-known of which was 2010′s For All We Know, a standards duo project with Belgian pianist Jef Neve on Impulse. While it showcased James’s distinctive baritone voice, it, disappointingly, was just another album of songs from years gone by.
James had a lot more on his mind when he was signed to Blue Note by label president Don Was: He wanted to be himself. Earlier this month, the 35-year-old Minneapolis-bred, New York-based artist released While You Were Sleeping (coproduced by James and Brian Bender), an album that clearly showcases his desire to break free from what he calls “the limits of jazz.” There’s more neo-soul and hip-hop, complemented by gritty electric guitar, electronic shadings, and a dash of folk. One tune, the soul-searching “4 Noble Truths,” is graced by a violin-cello arrangement. Most of the songs are written by James, except for a one-minute improv instrumental called “Salaam,” a cover of Al Green’s 1972 gem, “Simply Beautiful,” and the harmonized beauty “Dragon,” written by singer-songwriter Becca Stevens (who also lends her voice to the track).
“We’ve been playing Al’s song on tour, and it felt so good,” James says. “I wanted to leave everybody feeling soulful and sexy.”
James, who Aretha Franklin tapped to sing at her 70th-birthday bash in 2012, talks about his young career and how, as one reviewer says, he has “built his own road out of contemporary jazz.”
On the new album, you’re mixing a lot of sounds to create a unique voice.
I was influenced by what Frank Ocean, James Blake and José González’s band Junip are doing. I wanted to make an album that had my own sound, but was also very contemporary. I wasn’t interested in working with any producer. I wanted to experiment and also improvise — nothing satisfies more than improvisation. So I worked with [coproducer] Brian Bender and all my band members. They all had full input on every aspect of the album. It really is a band project — not a ton of people who came in and out. I wanted a consistent sound that had a London and pop vibe. So we came up with a feel that’s part singer/songwriter and indie rock, but never strays too far from the soulful.
How did songs develop?
I just let each song determine its own direction. So, for example, “Anywhere U Go” I started by sampling drums and then added a hip-hop beat. And then I did some scratch vocals. We built it up in a pop style. We recorded one instrument at a time to see where it would go. We swapped out parts and layered them in until everyone felt comfortable. So, it was an extension of how I write songs. We all worked together to make it right.
What’s it been like working with Don Was? He’s said that, while you tap into many musical traditions, you are also futuristic.
It’s very special. He gives people like Robert and me a lot of freedom. His philosophy is that we’re artists first, which is a unique position in this business. Don is an artist himself, so he understands how I approach my music. He makes it possible to create great art.
What kind of freedom do you have?
Complete. I wrote the majority of my music as well as produced both my albums for Blue Note. There’s no heavy A&R hand. On my first album, there were no “corrections.” For the second, Don had a few suggestions that were really good. Don believes in the vision of the artist he signed. I think I’m worried more about being commercial than he is — [things like] what should be a single, what can I do to tour? Don just says that he’s looking for high-quality music. He recognizes that Blue Note is not strictly a pop label. There’s a different standard, and it’s all about the excellence.
What impresses you the most about the jazz of the day?
To be honest, I find myself incapable of talking about genres. All the guys I play with in my band play jazz, but they’re not jazz exclusively. I don’t know any jazz musicians who just play jazz. All musicians know the basics and they listen to tons of music, without thinking specifically about jazz. I think the idea of genres has become an outdated concept. I haven’t paid attention to anything that’s considered straight-ahead jazz in a long time. I’m way more interested in the intersection with world music. Again, it’s about having full freedom, which is what Coltrane and Miles wanted. I’m seeking to expand my full potential as a composer, a bandleader, working in multidisciplinary areas like what [pianist] Vijay Iyer is doing, and working with people like Maxwell.
So you see the category of jazz as limiting.
I think that’s a fact. There’s no way to get around it. As soon as my music is called jazz, people think of Michael Bublé. But then when they say R&B, people think Usher and Maxwell. I don’t see artists limited to one genre. Look at James Blake. He’s a singer-songwriter, an indie rocker, a pop artist — he’s all of these things. And he’s totally into electronics. And Frank Ocean, he’s a singer-songwriter, a rapper and doing R&B. So I guess the best you could call me is R&B and soul.
Your last album had a soul and R&B vibe to it, but this time out you complement that with edgy electric guitar. How did that come about?
Since the last album, I’ve been writing most of my songs on the guitar. So I decided to bring Brad Allen Williams in. I felt really good about the guitar-based songs and started playing them live with the band. I felt like I was getting deeper into the music with the guitar. The band is so young; they bring a lot of power and energy to the music that wasn’t there before. I wanted to play free and I didn’t what to get trapped in R&B like some watered-down D’Angelo.
You also collaborate with other vocalists and songwriters on the new album, including a tune by Becca Stevens, “Dragon,” where you share the vocal lead.
Becca is one of the best musicians I know. She’s a great songwriter. I met her in New York at the New School music program. She has a special talent.
While she’s been active on the scene collaborating with Esperanza Spalding, Ambrose Akinmusire and Billy Childs as well as recording her own albums, why hasn’t Becca made more of an impression?
I think she’s a little too sophisticated for the U.S. She’s a musician’s musician. She’s not caught up in the commercial aspect of the music. That’s why she can write songs like “Dragon.” It’s like listening to Stereolab. The vocals are straight and clean yet also have a modern vibe. I think Becca is destined for greatness.
How does this different path you’re taking on the new album speak to your integrity as an artist?
It fits in with Blue Note, which took a chance signing Monk early in the label’s existence. He didn’t sell, and people didn’t think it was jazz. It was too modern, but now Monk is seen as one of the fathers of bebop. So the label is also taking a risk with me — to be just as authentic.