Lean On Me
Blue Note (BLU)
When he’s not making his own great (original) music José James is the guy you want covering you. His tribute album to Billie Holiday is a gold standard.
And now he gives the Bill Withers catalogue his touch – this is more of a straight reading, a warm tribute, James’ voice close to Withers in timbre, even the players here aping some of the magic (the great Nate Smith on drums sounds like an Energizer-Bunny version of James Gadson, particularly on Kissing My Love.
It’s all present, nearly-perfect and correct – there’s huge heart to this tribute, so obviously a labour of love. And yet there’s just enough that’s different about it, though I’d suggest it’s more a case of James introducing Withers to his audience – if you know Withers you might be happy already with all that he did (he’s the master, after all). But that said if this is your introduction to James, if you arrive at this due to interest in Bill Withers’ songs then you’re in for a wonderful ride if you check out the other music that José James has created. Such a great soulful singer, a consummate musician.
There are many magical moments here – Lalah Hathaway joining James for a duet on Lovely Day, a blues-y churn to Grandma’s Hands, the subtle way that Use Me and Who Is He are rendered in slightyl more subdued groove; as if to say that the originals are defining. Rather than out-funk Withers James sits back with his band, relaxes, enjoys the song.
That’s the actual magic here – respect for the music and the power being in the knowledge, the wisdom to serve the songs, to hold them up where other covers-albums might try to knock them down or rebuild.
No, James and his phenomenal band (slow-cooking is their speciality) know that the foundation is here. And in most cases it’s more than that. These songs are towers. But it’s a special groove that can rescue Just The Two of Us from its radio oversaturation, James really goes for it when knows he needs to step up or be knocked down himself too (as on Hope She’ll Be Happier) and the closer here, Better Off Dead, is majestic – sadly losing none of the prescience of its social commentary, but so winningly served up.
This is an easy-like – and is never trying to replace the originals. It’s a reminder of the twin talents of Withers the writer and singer. And James is essentially casting himself and his band in a background role here, support players to the songs. That, in the end, is really what speaks volumes. A class act worthy of Withers.