Jazz has long had its share of expatriates. American improvisers have sought acceptance in exile, and they've found a complicit and sympathetic ear in Europe. Saxophonists Don Byas, Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon spent years overseas, while master practitioners of bebop like Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke took residence on foreign soil. Sidney Bechet left for Paris in the early 1950s and never returned.
In a sense, Jose James fits a certain profile. He was born in Minneapolis and studied jazz in New York. But he's largely built his career as a London-based American.
"I guess I feel like Jimi Hendrix a little bit," James says. "There's just so much love for jazz in Belgium, Holland, the U.K., France and Spain, and also for stuff that's a little outside the box. I covered Freestyle Fellowship's 'Park Bench People,' and in Europe, that's considered jazz. So I can do a song like that, make it into a 15-minute jam, and actual jazz people check it out."
European audiences have accepted James for what he is, but American exposure has not always followed.
"I get called an R&B singer in the press here — which I think is really weird, because I think of R. Kelly being R&B," he says. "It's really good to be back [in the U.S.] ... but I do like that kind of freedom [in Europe], because I do feel like it's really compartmentalized here."
'For All We Know'
James is slowly repatriating. Though he has released a few albums on London's Brownswood Records, For All We Know marks his stateside debut. It's a quiet, relaxed setting of jazz ballad duos with Belgian pianist Jef Neve.
"I met Jef Neve at a radio show like this in Belgium," James says. "We ended the show doing a standard, 'Lush Life,' and I thought it was amazing. So we each had the day off the next day. I said, 'Let's just go into the studio and put it down.' It was really one of those 'seize the moment because the vibe is cool' impulses."
Impulse Records is the jazz label that saxophonist John Coltrane built, and it's the home of Jose James' new recording. James says he's a witness to the Coltrane effect.
"I actually got signed to Brownswood Records in London because of my version of John Coltrane's 'Equinox.' That's what [London-based DJ] Gilles Peterson heard. He flipped out. And he said, 'I really want you to do this Coltrane thing.' That's how my earlier recording, The Dreamer, got started. And that's how I met Alice Coltrane's nephew, Stephen Ellison [a.k.a. Flying Lotus], and we made the record Blackmagic together. It comes full circle, because Alice Coltrane made the last recording on Impulse Records."
In this WBGO session for The Checkout, James joins pianist Frank LoCrasto in three staples of the jazz repertoire: Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," a blues-filled "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You" and the title track, "For All We Know," an American popular song from the 1930s.
"I think that everyone approaches music in a different way," James says. "For me, this makes sense in the arc of what I want to do as a singer. What I really want to do is build a body of work that hopefully stands the test of time."
Time will tell, but James is off to a nice start. The audience will ultimately decide.
"It's just where I'm at right now," he says. "If people get confused, I guess they're just going to be confused. The next record will be totally different from the ballads record."
What you'll hear most of all in James is what defines jazz when it's at its best — honesty and improvisation. Jazz suits him, for all we know.
"Music reminds you that you don't know what tomorrow's gonna bring," he says. "You're here today. You want to leave a record of how you felt and how you're reacting to the world. You may be gone tomorrow, but the music remains."