Okayplayer did an interview with José James on the release of his last solo album Blackmagic in 2010. It was an inspirational piece in which he spoke eloquently and passionately about jazz as “progressive black music” and his role in pushing it forward. “I feel like I need to take the best of the kind of music and musicians that are around me and take it to the next level – whether it’s jazz, soul or whatever.” On his debut The Dreamer, he did it by applying a hip-hop aesthetic to jazz standards. Led by the cover of “Park Bench People,” it established him in jazz circles across the world, particularly in Europe and Japan. He followed it up with Blackmagic, an ambitious project on which he worked with Flying Lotus, Taylor McFerrin and Moodymann to create a sensual album that drew as much on I Want You as A Love Supreme (with a Benga cover thrown in for good measure). Three years later he returns with his first major label record, still driven by the same ideals, but expressed bigger, deeper and dare I say, better.
This time round he’s collaborating with the vanguard of progressive black music – Robert Glasper, Chris “Daddy” Dave and Pino Palladino – and up and coming talent in the form of Emily King and Hindi Zahra. Together they’ve made an album full of songs that are instantly familiar (classic, you could say) yet propelled by beats and rhythms that are thoroughly contemporary. Tying it all together is Jose himself, the man with the man with the golden voice.
The album launches with “It’s All Over Your Body”, which picks up thematically from where the sexually charged Blackmagic left off. But the opening drum break (that carries the opening 45 seconds of the track) serves notice that this is very much a new era in Jose James’ career. He’s still got the silky flow, he’s still got the ability to write killer hooks, but now he’s even tighter, even better. This is the sound of a musician at the top of his game marking his entry into the big time.
I caught him a few months back on his European tour, playing this set out for the first time. While he’s always been a confident and charismatic performer, he really shone that evening. Whether it was through the knowledge that he had some killer songs on his hands, the overwhelming reaction from the audience, the thrill of playing with a tight band or the simple joy of performing, he was incandescent that evening. And that feeling flows through No Beginning No End. Just like his live band, his collaborators here give him the space to lace tracks with his swag and style, and just like that evening, James knows when to step up to caress your ears and when to step back and let the music sing for him.
Songs like “Come To My Door” and “Trouble” should dominate playlists this year, while less immediate tracks like “Sword & Gun”; “Vanguard” and “Bird of Space” demand closer and extended listening. No Beginning No End is precisely the progressive black music he was talking about in his manifesto, a mix of soul, jazz, hip hop, afrobeat and more that James stamps with his own flavour. He’s always known where he wants to go, and this is the album that should take him there. Back in 2010 he told us that “I don’t see enough of what I’m into represented in mainstream culture, and I would like to.” 2013 should be the year that all changes for him.
– Will Georgi