José James: Beyond the “limits of jazz”

José James

José James is not impartial to flexing his voice, a gifted baritone, with a splice of folk, indie rock, electro, soul, jazz and hip hop. You name it, there’s not much that this modern day musical icon has not put his chords to. But for his latest release José James has returned to tradition with a contemporary tribute to the music of jazz icon, Billie Holiday.

José JamesThis year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billie Holiday. For James, who signed to the legendary Blue Note jazz label back in 2013, it was inevitable that he record a tribute to the vocalist he refers to as his “musical mother”, ‘Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday’.

“My first clear musical memory is of Billie Holiday,” said James. “Billie’s voice floated through our house – grand, warm, intimate, and wholly unique.

“I rediscovered Billie during a difficult period of my teenage years,” continued James. “As much as I loved Nirvana, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, her music spoke to me on a much deeper level. Her work was mastery – of pain, of trauma, of faith in music and the power of transformation. I had found my teacher. Billie Holiday made me want to be a jazz singer and set me on the path that I’m walking today.”

José JamesA sensitive and beautiful tribute, backed by a consummate rhythm section, ‘Yesterday I had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday’ is more purist jazz than James’ other releases. His 2008 debut ‘The Dreamer’ and its 2010 follow-up, ‘Blackmagic’ – both produced by legendary DJ Gilles Peterson for his Brownswood label – transformed the Minneapolis-born, New York-based singer into an underground sensation in both the modern jazz and DJ scenes.

Like many artists before him, home turf wasn’t going to be the springboard to James’s musical career. Having struggled to find a gig in New York, it was time spent in London, under the wing of Peterson, where he would find his feet. “I’ve said it many times, but [an] EP that I made in New York couldn’t get me one gig anywhere,” he said. “I went to every single cafe, bar, and club in New York and no one was interested. Then when I went to London, I got a record deal from the same EP. The Dreamer came out of that. London is a lot more receptive to new music.”

While James has since gone on to flirt with everything from indie rock, R&B to folk on more recent albums, it was his groundbreaking releases for Music_James2-1_49Peterson’s pioneering Brownswood label that still stand out to this day as his finest 45s. During that time, James was introduced to pioneers in the electronic scene including Flying Lotus, Lefto, Benga and Ben Westbeech. Their influences reign heavily on his ‘Blackmagic’ album, with ‘Warrior’ borrowing from Benga’s ‘Emotions’ where James jazz raps over rolling over a dubstep-meets-piano riff.

Minneapolis native José James has always drawn from disparate musical influences. “Growing up, it seemed like there was a new groundbreaking album coming out every month,” he says. “It was such an exciting time to be a fan of music. I can remember waiting for 10,000 Maniacs or Ice Cube to come out with a new album. That really stoked my creativity.”

James, who studied at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, was never into categorizing his music. “I just started putting all this stuff together,” he says. “For me, it was never about whether it was jazz or hip-hop. It was all about creative people who just had different sounds.”

His debut album for Blue Note, ‘No Beginning, No End’ signaled a new direction for José James, who pronounced he wanted to move away from the “limits of jazz”, bringing in more of an R&B vibe. But 2014’s experimental rock-edged ‘While You Were Sleeping’ blew any expectations.

“I wasn’t thinking that it was going to be a new direction or a new album,” James told Okayplayer. “All these songs just started coming to me and just opened me up to thinking about a new way of thinking about my music and myself. I feel like this is the most personal album that I’ve ever made. I don’t like to talk about lyrics and specific things and what they mean because I’d rather let people have their own meaning and their own journey in the songs, but there’s definitely a lot of spirituality and growth in these songs.”

Nobody can accuse José James of predictability. What he showcases on his next release, who knows, but that’s where James’s talent lies in being a jack of all trades and master of many.

More reviews of musicians and music:here

About the Author

Huria Choudhari is a journalist, creative warrior, intuitive counselor and life coach. She writes about music, fashion and lifestyle for Life & Soul Magazine: Having carved her journalism career in news and current affairs, Huria is a truth seeker. Applying that very same ethic, she also offers creative coaching and intuitive counselling services to help others discover their own truth. Get in touch with Huria at or