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Interview: José James

It’ll be a soulful night with an incredible band” José James

José James

Ahead of José James hitting EartH Theatre’s stage as part of EFG London Jazz Festival 2021, we spoke with him about experiencing the London dubstep scene of the late ’00s, the politics of music, his eclectic influences, and what to expect from his upcoming performance.

We’re excited to have you over here in London! Have you experienced much of the music scene here? If so how do you think it differs, if at all, from the scene in NYC?

José James: I was lucky to live in London from 2009-2010 when dubstep was being created. Going night after night to see people like Benga and Floating Points at venues like Plastic People, Cargo or Benji B‘s Deviation nights are moments I’ll treasure forever. I’d say for the most part the NY scene has moved to and merged with the LA scene. Robert Glasper, Taylor McFerrin, and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah are all working with cats like Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin which is really cool. Most of the DJs, producers, engineers, and musicians I knew from NY are now there and doing really interesting stuff, films, scoring.

In an interview with Huffington Post a few years ago, you were talking about the political climate in which you wrote Love In A Time Of Madness. Do you think jazz music by its very nature can ever be fully detached from politics?

José James: I don’t think any art or music can ever be detached from the realities of daily life. At its best art is a reflection and a critique of society, a focusing point. No matter what artists are affected by the world around them – that’s inescapable. At its best historically jazz has reflected and uplifted the world around it.

I don’t think any art or music can ever be detached from the realities of daily life. At its best art is a reflection and a critique of society, a focusing point […] historically jazz has reflected and uplifted the world around it.

José James

As an artist who has been described as a “jazz singer for the hip-hop generation;” do you think that such an overlap allows for contemporary jazz to have a wider impact? Have you seen any particular changes in the jazz concert-goers over the 10 years or so that you’ve been playing live?

José James: That’s an interesting question. I’m seeing a renewed interest in Black jazz by artists such as Kamasi Washington, Ledisi, Nubya Garcia, Julius Rodriguez, Brandee Younger and Shabaka Hutchings which is awesome. I’m definitely noticing a younger, browner and Blacker and more female-identifying audience claiming its own generation of artists. I don’t know about the impact of contemporary jazz, I think the kids just call it all music now which is great.

You have also talked of being drawn to jazz from a young age, due to the emotional depth and complexity, so how did you navigate these complexities? Have you had any notable mentors?

José James: I was drawn to the work then, and continue to be now, by the emotional and spiritual depth. The work of John and Alice Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and other artists of that stature will never be surpassed, only extended. I’ve been extremely lucky to have incredible mentors at every stage of my career, too many to name here. Some notable ones are Junior Mance, Louis Alemayehu, Chico Hamilton, Christian McBride, Andy Bey, Janet Lawson and Don Was.

How did it feel in 2012 when you signed to Blue Note? What is it like to be a part of such an iconic institution of the music industry?

José James: It was very exciting! It remains a huge honour to have joined that roster and legacy in jazz. Don Was gave me complete artistic control and we’ve very proud of the music we created together. I hope that some part of that catalogue will stand the test of time. Certainly No Beginning No End will.

You recently contributed to a compilation record of Bill Withers reversions to celebrate the anniversary of Just As I Am. Tell us what inspires you about Bill Withers, any favourite songs of his, whether you have any memories related to his music…

José James: Bill was an enormous talent and quite a genius. He was also devastatingly funny. As a songwriter he is on the highest level possible – right up there with Carole King, Billie Joel, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. It was an enormous honour to interpret his music and to meet him and his family. His music is now a deep part of me and we keep it alive at every show.

You’ve also cited the likes of John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, and Billie Holiday as influences but which of your contemporaries are you also drawn to?

José James: Anderson .Paak, Taali, Ben Williams, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Laura Mvula, Robert Glasper, Ledisi, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Lalah Hathaway, Baloji.. there are a lot!

Outside of fellow musicians, where else do you find inspiration throughout your creative process?

José James: Literature, photography, fine art … I love visiting the Hayward and Whitechapel Galleries and Tate Modern in London. I’m close friends with the artists Janette Beckman and Hassan Hajjaj who both inspire me endlessly. I also love to travel and seeing cities brings me new insight into fashion and how people move through life.

Ending on a lighter note… given you just released the new track Christmas In New York, what’s your ultimate holiday song that is guaranteed to get you in the festive mood?

José James: Well of course I love that one! I think it’s a new contemporary classic. From the old school, you can’t beat Nat “King” Cole singing The Christmas Song. That’s the ultimate. 

Finally, what can we expect from your set at EartH?

José James: London always goes off! I love my audience there – so smart, fashionable and cool. I’ll be performing music from across my career: The Dreamer, Blackgagic, No Beginning No End 1&2 plus some Bill Withers gems. It’ll be a soulful night with an incredible band – Big Yuki on keys, Yves Fernandez on bass, Richard Spaven on drums and special guest Taali.

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