José James plays the Dakota again Wednesday night. (Janette Beckman)
Something seems to happen whenever José James comes home to perform at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.
He reminisces. He gets chatty. He gives shout outs to friends, family and former colleagues, teachers and mentors from his days in the Twin Cities.
On Tuesday night at the Dakota, James joked that he was practically reciting his entire Wikipedia page because, well, he talked a lot about his past. For instance, he said the reason he moved to New York in 1999 was because there were too many good jazz singers in the Twin Cities and he named Debbie Duncan, Connie Evingson, Dennis Spears, the Petersons and others.
After a clubgoer asked where James went to high school, the singer explained that he starred in the musical “Cinderella” at South High in Minneapolis. Then he added: "I turned down [a part] in 'West Side Story,' not knowing who was in it. Josh Hartnett. I [messed up] my acting career."
Interesting? Or indulgent? It probably depends whether you were a friend, a fan or a newcomer. One thing for certain is that James didn’t talk about these subjects when he performed two weeks ago at Kennedy Center (which he mentioned) in Washington, D.C.
The task at hand on Tuesday was to play the music of 1970s pop hitmaker Bill Withers, which will be James’ next album. In fact, he began recording last weekend in Los Angeles, with the disc due Sept. 28.
During his 10-year recording career, the unpredictable James, 40, has been all over the musical map. He’s made original jazz with hip-hop influences, sung standards, recorded a tribute to Billie Holiday and written original contemporary R&B.
James was convincing playing Withers music. Even though he picked mostly familiar tunes (“Use Me,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day”), he brought a jazziness to them, with an occasional hip-hop flair when he was riffing. For instance, on “Grandma’s Hands,” he fixated on phrases, repeating them, and singing like he was DJ scratching a record.
Other highlights included three little known numbers -- the gorgeous ballad “Hello Like Before”; “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” rendered with James’ full voice, and “Kissing My Love,” during which the singer got completely lost in love.
What helped make James’ 95-minute set successful was the wonderful support from his band. James Francis took jazzy adventures on keyboards, and guitarist Brad Allen Williams traveled in various styles from blues to Larry Carlton-ish jazz-fusion on several long and involving solos.
Also outstanding was the steady and groove-oriented rhythm section of drummer Nate Smith and bassist Reuben Rogers, who had played four nights over the weekend with jazz saxophone giant Charles Lloyd at the Dakota.
On Tuesday, the musicians probably learned more about James than they wanted to know. Maybe he’ll have some new stories for them during Wednesday night’s return engagement when he promises the same set list.