Jose James: Melbourne Jazz Festival
Jose James is a part of the new wave of jazz performers. Jazz began as a pioneering musical pursuit where artists broke the rules and purged away the rigid constructs of classical music. It was as drug-fuelled and hedonistic as the rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s or the nihilism of the ‘90s. Somewhere along the way it got trapped in its own mystique and it is artists like Jose James, who combines hip hop with jazz artistry and neo soul heart, that are paving the way for the future of jazz. The Melbourne International Jazz Festival is arriving once again and amongst the impressive lineup will be James and his new show.
When I chat with James he has just received the mastered copy of his new album and is about to embark on the maiden listen. “I am really excited to hear what was done,” James says genuinely. “It was mastered by Tom Coyne who did Adele’s 21, Love Deluxe, Chris Brown and so many classics. The mix is already done so I know what it sounds like essentially. I just want to hear how it sounds in the world. I’ll play it on all of my systems at home, in the car, have a few other people listen to it and just try and let the album be in the world. If something jumps out at you, you notice that, but you really listen as an audience.”
His musical journey began as the son of Panamanian saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist and despite a grounding in traditional jazz, he has journeyed into his own sound. How that sound was formed, is something I am interested in. “It comes from having a solid background in jazz and a love of soul music and being around created people,” he says. “I was influenced by a lot of musical pioneers that combined a lot of different genres together. I know what I want to do so it’s just been about meeting the right people to do that. Fortunately I got to meet Pino Palladino and got him involved as co-producer on this album and that was amazing.”
Palladino is primarily a fretless bass guitarist who has played with everyone from the John Mayer Trio to The Who. His style incorporates jazz, rock, rhythm and blues and soul. In short, he’s freaking amazing. So what role did he play as producer for James? “It was a very Motown style where we had writers and engineers, Palladino and myself, and we had musicians,” he explains. “We had a lot of ideas of getting the right musician for the right song. It was a lot of fun working stuff out together. He brought this amazing vibe and everyone had to step up in the studio. He was doing a lot of work so he also knew we had to make the time in the studio count. I have a lot of respect for him and he is the absolute best bass player in the world.”
James’ genre-bending approach to jazz may be jarring to some purist in his audience and I ask him what he experiences in the overall response to his music, particularly from an older crowd. “They like it, actually,” he says. “I would say that there are some older people that want to hear things a certain way in the classic, sit down jazz style. A very small percentage of the jazz people get turned off by seeing guys wearing Nike’s or street clothes and it’s a cultural thing. I played last week and there were people in their 50s who stayed all night, it wasn’t a sit down club and they loved it. People who love what jazz is about, love what I do. There is always going to be people who don’t like something.”
Given that the genre has been plagued by the assumption that the standards interpreted in a gold star way is the only approach one can take with jazz, where is it going to journey into the future? The misconceptions around jazz are rife. Some lovers of jazz are threatened by an original tune let alone one that breaks the rules of how it should be performed. Those that don’t understand jazz think that it is unenjoyable and somehow removed from their beloved genres of hip hop, soul and funk – forgetting that jazz is the foundations of those genres. With someone like James, who turns jazz on its head, how does he see the attitude towards jazz changing. “I think jazz used to be a lot more creative and free,” he says. “When you look back on Miles Davis and those people, they were taking chances all of the time. They were pushing boundaries. I think that’s what the next generation of jazz musicians are trying to do. There are people who are trying to align themselves with beat makers and producers and it’s becoming a youth culture as well. Jazz thrives on creativity so there is this whole new way to look at jazz’s role in culture and in music.”
BY KRISSI WEISS
JOSE JAMES plays Melbourne Town Hall with McCoy Tyner and Chris Potter in A Contemporary Exploration of John Coltrane & Johnny Hartmann on Sunday June 3 and at The Forum Theatre with Future Now on Friday June 8.