His voice is from another age and time. With the self-assured swagger of Frank Sinatra, Jose James' casual, effortless glide through song is something so rare in contemporary jazz that it cannot help but stand out. On BlackMagic, his second release on Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Recording indie label, James dims the hip hop and spoken word influences of his earlier The Dreamer to conjure jazz and soul more sinewy and mystical. The Panamanian and Irish Brooklynite (by way of Minneapolis, MN) does more than wrap his beckoning baritone around a lyric like no other; the pocket nester stretches across genres on BlackMagic to tackle a rare jazz standard, radio R&B, drum n' bass, and ambient progressive soul tailor-made for martini lounges the world over. The results are nothing less than sublime, with James' birthing one of the first complete albums of the year.
James' simplicity often invites comparisons to Jon Lucien and Terry Callier. But, for me, Lucien's rarely been as consistently engaging as James, and Callier, while closer, embraces a folksiness that the urbane James has yet to demonstrate. On cuts like "Beauty," the old guard of Black jazz crooners like Arthur Prysock and Johnny Hartman, with their husky, yet opal smooth baritones are better fits, fathers of Jose James iconoclastic image and ever enriching singing style (if any of those guys could also exhibit a rapper's flow, I'd call for DNA testing). James' melting vocals have matured from his youthful hug of rap cadences to those of a legitimate, traditional balladeer, with only a couple of exceptions like "Code." Instead of freestyles, the singer unveils new range and movement on soft to full journeys like the piano ballad "No Tellin."
What is even more of a departure from The Dreamer than the reduction of hip hop and spoken word influenced material is the number of commercial, radio ready jams that people BlackMagic. Moreover, James expresses a diversity that takes the radio tracks from the bedroom to the dance floor. The light refrain of "lay you down and pick you up and lay you down and..." juxtaposed against the witnessing horns and back funk bassline on the verses of "Lay You Down" is sexier than the entire R Kelly catalog. Musically personifying its title, "Love Conversation," James and Jordana de Lovely's adventurous duet (I couldn't make up her name if I tried) added so many ingenious harmonic and complementary elements of partner interplay throughout the song that the percussive composition itself becomes the living, breathing embodiment of sexual foreplay. The stepper's delight of "Promise In Love" and the rhythmic neo-soul kiss of "Detroit Loveletter" takes you back to the soulful '70s and '80s smooth jazz of Grover Washington Jr., Roy Ayers, and Bobby Caldwell. The refreshing hip hop bassline of Nancy Wilson's classic "Save Your Love For Me" thoroughly updates the standard, modernizing it so much that even Joe Cool can be found head bobbing on his red dog house.
Named one of the "21 Best Jazz Albums of 2008" by JazzTimes, Jose James' mostly self-penned Dreamer announced a rarity: the return of a male jazz singer in a field where bald eagles are more plentiful. Still, James seemed not to fully step into the role of jazz singer, like say Kevin Mahogany. Instead, he took oat-sowing forays with dance and electronica nu-pioneers like Flying Lotus (also making a production appearance on BlackMagic along with Producer Moodymann), Basement Jaxx, and Junior Mance, experimenting as a young man should. Now, with his recent twin contributions to hard bop jazz man Timo Lassy's classic Round Two and Jazzanova's Of All The Things, James steps more fully into his role as the next generation of jazz, if with a hybrid twist. Through BlackMagic, James takes one step further down that path with enormous promise and what may be one of the most memorable albums of 2010. It will be interesting to see what his new home, the legendary jazz label, Verve, will do with him as their latest prodigy. If BlackMagic is any indication, this warlock will have us spellbound for decades to come.