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AAA Music | 24 June 2024

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José James – Live @ Ronnie Scott’s

| On 28, May 2015


Tuesday 19th June, London

Ever since I first witnessed José James’ blend of funky jazz and neo soul at Shoreditch’s intimate Bedroom Bar three years ago, I have been in love with the man’s music and in awe of his career; it’s as if he stepped onto an escalator headed straight to the peak of Mount Modern Jazz the second he departed the grimy (but loveable) Shoreditch stage.

The NY singer was back in London for this sold-out Ronnie Scott’s gig to showcase his latest Blue Note album (his third from the label in three years), Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday. The atmosphere was electric; the night felt special before it had even gotten underway. As it turned out, it was perhaps the most special jazz concert I’ve been to all year…perhaps during the last couple of years.

Donning a fly, patterned shirt and shades, and backed by a phenomenal trio (piano, bass and drums), José James proceeded to silence all those who had doubted his ability to take on the songs of Lady Day. James later explains that his decision to record Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday was a deeply personal one: he has always felt a genuine connection to Billie’s similar background, in terms of being mix raced and initially misunderstood (at least vocally), as well as living in New York. Why shouldn’t a male record the songs of a woman? He went on to ask if would anyone question a woman performer recording the songs of a great male jazz performer like Miles Davis, before saying that his album is as much as a dedication to Holiday as it is to the musical collaborators that helped produce her music: Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, etc.

José’s warm, soulful tones never caused any injustices to Billie Holiday’s songs. On record, the covers are restrained and respectful, never moving too far away from lounge-y, piano bar jazz. Live, however, José reinterprets the compositions, using his deep range in all its glory, pushing the melodies into harder blues, soul and R&B (even interjecting in the melody of Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ on one occasion), while his band twist the music down contemporary jazz and hip hop pathways. Nate Smith’s drumming offered occasional R&B and hip hop beats, Leo Genovese piano work was the backbone of every song, while Solomon Doresy’s bass brought odd moments of funk and blues, with the most memorable moment being a drunken-blues sounding solo in which he also scatted with Thundercat-like vocals.

‘Fine And Mellow’ and ‘Body And Soul’ were main set highlights, with the latter showcasing James’ use of a kind of ‘vocal solo’ – fast becoming a live trademark of his – during which he repeats and reworks a lyrical hook into something unique. Best of all, however, was the inspired full band performance of ‘God Bless The Child’ at the end of the second set – the best performance of this signature Billie Holiday song this writer has ever had the pleasure of seeing and hearing.

There was a touching moment during the performance when James welled up explaining how much he owed London for his growing status as one of contemporary jazz and soul’s most revered vocalists. It was in this city that a demo (the same demo that all of NY had been ignoring) fell into the hands of one Gilles Peterson, who signed him to Brownswood and kick-started his career. Hurray, as always, for Gilles Peterson.

For the encore, José James returned solo for a powerfully emotional a capella rendition of album closer ‘Strange Fruit’, using vocal loops to build up the background neo soul harmonies. It was very Jamie Woon, but as much as I love Woon’s similarly evocative live reimagining of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, I’ve never seen people sob and cheer like they did during James’ haunting ‘Strange Fruit’. “Life-changing”, as a good friend and critic said afterwards.

Clive Paris Rozario