Jose James at Harlem Stage’s Gatehouse by Cooper Myers

An interesting scene awaits you when you enter the Harlem Stage. Tables and chairs are set up in rows throughout the floor of the stage. If there was a little bit more light, it could resemble a Sunday brunch accompanied by a show. It also shares the atmosphere with a bar setting, in a way. The only thing giving away that this is a show is the space itself.

The ceiling is curved, dozens of feet above you. It almost doesn’t seem like a concert. But you know why you came there. To see the music of Billie Holiday, which is much less feasible today than well over fifty years ago, when Billie was at her prime. As you wait, sipping your beverage in the meantime, you begin to wonder who this man is, and if his voice can live up to the standard of one on the greatest jazz singers that ever lived.

When Jose James walks out, he further heightens that anticipation by not playing immediately, but discussing his work. As he talks more, you begin to predict that your skepticism of his talent will soon be done away with. He recalls memories of youth, how Billie was a second mother to him, and his emotional connection with her music, as well as technical aspects of her vocal structure. You can tell that he is deeply associated with this music.

Thus it is no surprise when he walks out on stage and sings with all the emotion and soul that you would expect. His vocal talents are exceptional, even if not exclusively jazz. He adds aspects of soul, funk, and R&B to many of his arrangements. However, just because his voice isn’t necessarily jazz doesn’t mean that him as a whole isn’t. He makes use of a skillful rhythm section, and skillful solos from all of them.

Pianist Leo Genovese stars in a startlingly beautiful duet in “I Thought About You”, and bassist Solomon Dorsey even sings over his own solo in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” He eventually incorporates master trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, who provides all the soul and punch normally found in James’ voice in a sharp, brassy package. Like James, he shows no fear in belting it out on his instrument of choice. The order of the tunes was no different than that of the album, which was all for the better. “Good Morning Heartache” is a perfect opener, hitting you with a hint of that regret found on Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”.

The closer of the album, “Strange Fruit”, is a chilling encore finale. James walks onto the stage alone, using only his powerful voice and powerful hand claps to perform his rendition of one of the most powerful songs ever written. He loops his own voice behind him, belting out his heart and soul in front of the loops stronger than he has for the whole concert. His hand claps sound like whip snaps over his eerie oohs and ahs. It was almost a spiritual experience, and one that I’m sure few people in the room will forget. If you ever manage to obtain tickets to see this man, you are sure to be treated to brilliant vocals and instrumentation that make you feel the same connection that Jose James himself felt.

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