New York 2020 (Live)
I’m a huge fan of José James – he was, for a time, the most exciting new jazz singer on the planet. But he gave that up to be a super great R’n’B singer. Then he decided to be a Bill Withers jukebox for a while. And that was nice, a bit wax-museum, but hey, Withers wasn’t interested in coming back (when he could) and now of course he can’t (R.I.P). But James is also some sort of spiritual rapper – not a hip-hop artist as such but there’s so much funk and soul in his delivery, in his performing philosophy, in his musical aura, that he can toast without boasting – which in itself is an incredibly rare skill.
Across the last decade he’s made a handful of brilliant albums – and there’s always been the talk of the bands he drives, great players pushing strong songs out from the stage. Last year, as we all know, was a shit-show. And a near no-show for live performances. No shows indeed.
So this is José James’ version of the live album. A couple of sets recorded live last year – the band and him. The audience receiving the now-standard Lockdown feed, a stream (but a trickle of a live performance in a sense). Though James is on fire here. And so is the band. Just ludicrously good. It’s like a showreel from across his career to date – all captured in two groove-filled sessions. (This is a total parenthetical sidenote, erm, hence the brackets – but a lot of Kiwi musicians that think they know soulful grooves and slow-jam feels need to sign up for his musical newsletters right here, right now!)
The songs already exist – they have their studio versions. Here they’re almost rewritten, certainly nothing about these versions feels lazy or trainer-wheels. It’s all full bore, and I know it’s a heathen-call but this, to me, is at least nine times better than anything by D’Angelo.
This is D’Angelo and Prince and Al Jarreau all wrapped in one. This is the best band you’ve never previously heard (joining James on the vocals is Taali and J. Hoard. Marcus Machado’s guitar is like a Jim Hall of funk, such is the tone. But then he’s full-blaze Sonny Sharrock too! Big Yuki’s piano and keys is the modern day Billy Preston, Ben Williams’ bass locks everything done just right. And Jharis Yokely on drums is – briefly – the star of the goddamn show in fact).
There are several star turns here. Across two discs. You are spoiled for choice. Not a dud here. Just musicians playing like their livelihood depends on it. Because it does. Throw them your coins if you can. Or listen and share and talk up this magical project. There is magic here. That’s for sure. A velvet voice, a band that turns on a dime, an effortlessly churning groove – all good things. Sometimes it feels like the very best things in this life.
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