What is the true meaning of jazz in the 21st century? Don’t worry; that was a rhetorical question. Enough arguments have been sparked on blogs and message boards to make your head spin faster then “Giant Steps” at 350 bpm. What most jazz fans can agree on however is that since its commercial and artistic peak in the 40’s and 50’s, the music has become increasingly academic, relegated to expensive nightclubs and cloistered universities. As a result, most jazz performed today is either very traditionalist or too musically/harmonically complex to appeal to anyone who is not a musician. That is to say, the audience is quickly diminishing.
The most pressing question then for the jazz community is not what currently constitutes the genre, but whether jazz music, or music performed by jazz-trained musicians, can appeal to the mainstream music fan. In other words, can the musicians bring the music back to the people?
With the recent success of artists like Esperanza Spalding, who won best new artist at the Grammys in 2010, and Robert Glasper, whose 2012 release ‘Black Radio’ debuted at 15 of the Billboard albums chart; jazz sounds are starting to creep back into the mainstream. While these musicians may have been trained at prestige music schools like The New School or Berklee, they are creating music that is more at home on Hype Machine than in a conservatory.
This new generation of players owe as much to Stevie Wonder and A Tribe Called Quest as Miles or Monk. They have grown up listening to hip/hop, rock and R&B, and integrate these genres naturally into a style that still has deep roots in their traditional jazz training. This is not the first time jazz musicians have borrowed from other genres, but where as the jazz-rock-fusion of the 70’s was clearly premeditated; these younger musicians are simply playing the music that feels right. And instead of labeling it as some kind of jazz hybrid, they prefer the simpler and less loaded term, ‘Black Music.’
Jose James’ “It’s All Over Your Body”
Jose James, whose release “No Beginning No End” debuted on Blue Note Records earlier this month, is a vocalist who exemplifies this new musical aesthetic. James, 31, was a jazz protégée who studied at The New School and was a finalist in the Thelonius Monk Jazz Competition in 2004. He is a jazz musician first with a deep love for a hip-hop and R&B. His smoky vocal style owes a debt to both D’Angelo and Billie Holiday, and snakes in and out of the tight J Dilla-esque grooves that make up the record.
The most exciting tracks on “No Beginning No End” come when James is backed by a contemporary jazz super-group that includes drummer Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave, bassist Pino Pallidino and pianist Robert Glasper. The sound of the combo is crisp and hypnotic, a delicate interplay between three of the most singular musicians in jazz and R&B. The opener, “It’s All Over Your Body” is built around a laid back bass and drums feel augmented with splashes of Glasper’s Fender Rhodes, giving James a chance to showcase his measured vocal delivery. “Trouble,” the catchiest song on the album, sounds like an old school 70’s soul tune driven by an inverted drumbeat from Dave that is downright inhuman. “Sword and Gun” is another stand out track featuring Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra. The song is built around a looping North African groove layered with percussion, handclapping and Fela Kuti style afro-pop horns.
The songs “Come to My Door” and “Heaven On The Ground,” written by R&B singer Emily King, add a soul-pop dimension to the album. On “Heaven On The Ground,” King provides acoustic guitar and a wistful vocal that creates an intriguing blend with James’s smoky tenor. While these tracks sound somewhat out of place in the context of the album, they are well-crafted songs that highlight James’s ability to perform convincingly across multiple genres.
It’s tempting to label “No Beginning No End” as a crossover album, but it’s something more than that; it’s further proof that jazz sounds can have an enduring place in contemporary music. James has created an album that is cohesive yet eclectic, and experimental while still being genuinely fun to listen to. And like the 90’s Neo-Soul innovators The Roots, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo before them, James and crew appear poised to reinvigorate Black popular music.
Written by Ethan Varian
OurVinyl | Contributor
[To purchase this album on iTunes just click here]