Jose James: A Broad-Minded Singer Lets The Beat Build Known for his proficiency in jazz, the singer employs the tools of hip-hop on his latest album, No Beginning No End.
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Jose James: A Broad-Minded Singer Lets The Beat Build

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Jose James: A Broad-Minded Singer Lets The Beat Build

Jose James: A Broad-Minded Singer Lets The Beat Build

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. The voice of Jose James snakes and winds and wraps itself around a lyric. The effect is funky and soulful and hypnotic.


JOSE JAMES: (Singing) (Unintelligible) we've got to try and figure out some kind of way to go, that we know. Traveling with me every time I step around the way and things are slow, so we can let it go.

BLOCK: Jose James is rooted in jazz. He grew up in Minneapolis, the son of a Panamanian jazz saxophonist. He studied jazz at the prestigious New School in New York, was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition in 2004. And a couple of years ago, he toured with the legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner.


JAMES: (Singing) Trouble me, all my life (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: Now, Jose James is out with a new album titled "No Beginning, No End." He told me this song, "Trouble," started out on the New York City subway, the Q train.

JAMES: I literally just had the intro out and the beat in my head. I was on my way to the studio to write the song, so I just did like a beat box and just was doing it for, like, 20 minutes to myself until I could get to the studio.

BLOCK: So what did it sound like on the subway when you started out?

JAMES: Just (making noise) again and again and again, you know. That's all you need to get the - you know, right there, like, the kind of beat is there, the swagger is there, the key. You know, there's a lot of musical information. And like a lot of people in my generation, we use hip-hop as a - act just as a tool to compose and then it's the jazz training that let me turn that into a full song.


JAMES: (Singing) I - I need someone like you to come to spend my (unintelligible) my soul, it's always trouble, trouble, trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble. All my life, baby, call on me to - trouble, trouble, trouble.

BLOCK: Where did your love of jazz come from in the first place?

JAMES: I think my first musical memory is actually listening to Billie Holiday, you know. I think I must have been, like, 3 or 4 years old. I can just remember hearing, "God bless a child that's got his own," which I didn't know what she was singing about, and I actually thought she was saying, That's got hizzo, because of her kind of slangy Baltimore accent. I was like, what's hizzo? God bless a child that's got hizzo?

You know, it sounds like some Jay-Z slang now, right? And her voice just kind of made an impression. I feel like her voice has been with me my whole life. And then, like everybody else, listen to 10,000 Maniacs, Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Tribe Called Quest. And all the '90s hip-hop, even, like, the really hardcore gangster rap had jazz in it. It was upright bass and flute and, you know, being a child of the CD era, they had to list all the sample clearances.

So I'd say, okay, used as a sample by Miles Davis and I'd be like, oh, who's Miles Davis? Who's Roy Aris(ph)? Who's Eric Dolphy(ph)? And that's sort of how the journey began.


JAMES: (Singing) I won't stay. You want to go. I can't wait for it anymore. And all the time that I used to know is gone away like a river flow. It's all over. It's all over. It's all over for me, my baby.

BLOCK: I'm talking to Jose James. His new album is "No Beginning, No End." One of the songs that I keep coming back to, which has so much going on is a song that features a Moroccan vocalist, Hindi Zahra. It's called "Sword + Gun."

JAMES: This was the first song that I recorded for the album and because of visa issues, it's very difficult for African artists to travel to the U.K. and the U.S. She had like a four-day gap on her tour. She said, Jose, I have four days off in Paris, can you come? So I flew there without a song or a band to do some writing. And we booked a studio and had a little sketch just with this beat.


JAMES: Boom, boom, boom. And she really liked that. She said, okay, we don't need a band, like start recording. She grabbed a djimbe(ph) and says, okay, play something. And I started playing (unintelligible) and we actually used the number one hip-hop compositional tool sampling. You know, we sampled ourselves playing the percussion and then she brought in an element of Gnawa music and...

BLOCK: The what music?

JAMES: Gnawa. It's a special, sacred Moroccan music. There's usually one or two-string instruments and a lot of this super-complicated polyrhythmical clapping.


JAMES: (Singing) Lay down your sword and gun. Lay down your soldiers' arms.

And without a band or anything, in about six hours, we had already written a whole song that sounded pretty amazing. And it was really exciting for me, because I don't think a jazz person would ever walk into a studio without a band and without a song to record a track on their album.


JAMES: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

I wanted you to feel like you were taking a journey with me on this album and I wanted you to feel like you were taking an adventure through music with me and sort of meeting some of my friends, you know. I feel like we got that with this track.

BLOCK: Well, it's a pretty great adventure.

JAMES: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jose James, it's great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

JAMES: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: You can hear the entire Jose James album, "No Beginning, No End," and more from our interview at

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