Growing up listening to Billie Holiday can have quite an impact on a man. Nearly 35 years after first hearing her unmistakeable voice, and in the year that would have seen Holiday’s 100th birthday, Jose James brought a few of her classics to the Variety Playhouse on Saturday, April 4.
The strength of the show was James’ ability to channel and connect with Holiday without being encumbered by the responsibility of trying to sound just like her. That, and his tendency to incorporate elements of his more present-day techniques to brighten — and familiarize — the experience.
As a set up for James’ new album, Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday, the performance likely secured his fandom among frequent followers. A little less sure is its ability to convert those more interested in Lady Day than her contemporaries.
And that’s perfectly OK. As James’ ode to the unequivocal jazz vocalist, it’s necessarily personal, and at the start, unpredictable.
While the mixed crowd of jazz devotees, newbies, young, old and various races likely signed up to see James, they were treated to a strong opening set by Detroit drummer Brandon Williams. Of the guest vocalists, the strongest by far was Anesha Birchett, who’s featured on Williams’ new album, XII. She had just enough depth in her vocals to make them soulful, but her skillful, varied stylings made it all the way jazz.
As entertaining as Williams and the crew were, I found myself impatient for James. Before long, host Jamal Ahmad of the Dangerfeel Newbies was proclaiming the honor of breaking James on his WCLK-FM show, “The S.O.U.L. of Jazz,” seven years ago.
Out steps James, all cool, in a soft brown leather jacket, a darker hat, and even darker shades.
The first song on the album was also the first of the set: “Morning Heartache.” He drew every bit of sorrowful resignation on the “can’t shake you no how” phrasing, an indication of things to come. It was all ears on the beautifully ribboned keys solo by Leo Genovese, a contrast to James’ repeated “morning” riff, a la a record scratch from your favorite turntabilist.
“I’ve been looking forward to this night for a long time,” James said after the song. “I promised I would come back … and I’m back.”
He mentioned how both Holiday and Frank Sinatra would have celebrated their centennial in 2015, and with “Body and Soul” next, he said with a smile, “We had a Sinatra ending on that one.”
A tune Holiday wrote, “Fine and Mellow,” followed, with a fine bass solo by Solomon Dorsey, and more “do, do, do” riffing by James that went on a tad too long.
“Tenderly,” James’ “favorite standard of all time,” came next, and behind it, “Lover Man,” with elements of Mingus and Al Green. Like the best hip-hop samples, it worked seamlessly.
“They talk about jazz like it’s real academic and safe. I’m pretty sure Miles Davis did more drugs than any hip-hop artist,” he said, to chuckles and applause from the crowd, before referencing “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” a standard that Holiday recorded. “If that’s not hip-hop, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Moments later, James fans are treated to a familiar track from his 2013 No Beginning, No End album, “Come to My Door,” segueing into the Al Green classic “Simply Beautiful” and its “I’d expect a whole lot of love out of you” challenge. From there, he and the band smooth into a first-fime-for-them cover of D’Angelo’s “One Mo’ Gin,” and then “Red Clay” by Jack Wilson — familiar to ATCQ fans via “Sucka Nigga.”
James’ hip-hop influence becomes tactile with a freestyle, telling listeners that he’ll never sell his soul to the devil and is on another level.
He anticipates the crowd’s question — “How in the world are we going to get back to Billie Holiday?” — and answers with one of her definitive songs, “God Bless the Child.”
For the encore, James returns to the stage alone and without his jacket, signaling the stripped down sounds to come. Using single tracks of his voice and handclaps, looped and layered against the backdrop of his acoustic guitar and perfect spaces of silence, “Strange Fruit” becomes the haunting, heart-wrenching symphony of cotton fields.
In that moment, James’ impact is a worthy addition to Holiday’s legacy. Yesterday we may have had the blues, but by James’ musical might, and by her spirit, it’s a new day.