The baritone singer returns home with a buzz building in London and New York.
Since he's from Minneapolis, José James didn't need to be told the difference between First Avenue and the Dakota Jazz Club. That's why it was surprising to hear the singer say he might play either nightclub when he finally returned for a hometown performance.
"It depends on the project," James said by phone two months ago, a couple weeks before Thursday's gig at the Dakota was confirmed. "We're doing it like cats did back in the day, and playing different projects and seeing where the music takes us."
At 31, James' smooth baritone voice has already taken him in several directions, musically and geographically speaking.
After winning a jazz competition in London in 2006, he made his first record, "The Dreamer," for a U.K. label featuring original, forward-thinking jazz compositions. His next album, "Blackmagic," was mostly created with help from hip-hop and electronic producers. He has also appeared as a guest vocalist on projects by British techno duo Basement Jaxx, Japanese DJ Toshio Matsuura and jazz vets Christian McBride and Junior Mance (he studied with the latter at New York's New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music).
James' third disc, "For All We Know" -- the one he's promoting at the Dakota -- is a surprisingly straight-up, no-frills collection of jazz standards recorded in one day in Belgium with Brussels-based pianist Jef Neve and no one else.
Talking by phone from New York, where he lived before resettling in London last year, James pointed to his gig calendar to explain why he didn't know where in Minneapolis he would land on tour.
"I'll do the 'For All We Know' material as a duo at the North Sea Jazz Festival, and then play with my five-piece John Coltrane band, and then open for the Roots a couple days later doing 'Blackmagic,'" he said.
James developed his broad musical palette right here in Minneapolis. His dad, also named José James, is a saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist originally from Panama City who played in Willie & the Bees and Ipso Facto. The younger James honed his voice singing choral music at De La Salle High School and then joined the jazz and pop singers after transferring to South High. He also performed with local jazz visionary Carei Thomas in his teens.
As important as his school work, James said, was growing up listening to nonprofit jazz station KBEM (88.5 FM).
"Back then, you couldn't just download any music you wanted," he recalled. "I was checking out the radio a lot, mostly for hip-hop and indie-rock, although they didn't call it indie rock then. I'd always turn the dial to the left and just see what was down there, and all that jazz music sounded weird to me. I didn't understand it, but I was kind of intrigued by it because nobody else my age knew about it.
"Then I finally heard the Ellington band play 'Take the A Train,' and I couldn't believe it. It was so swinging and full of joy, it really struck me. Then I found out this guy Billy Strayhorn wrote the song, so I checked him out. I knew Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, too, and bought some cassettes and got completely hooked."
James' jazz roots came full circle with "For All We Know," issued last month via Verve/Universal, his first disc with wide U.S. distribution. His deal is actually through Verve subsidiary Impulse! Records, the storied label that fostered John Coltrane.
Featuring such oft-tread jazz classics as "Embraceable You," "Autumn in New York" and "Lush Life," the new duo record is far from the norm for a singer who has generally eschewed standards in his set. He said it happened purely on a whim after he went twice on a radio show that his piano partner Neve hosts in Brussels.
"It's a really hip show, and they always close it out by doing a standard," he said. "We did 'Embraceable You,' and the year before we did 'Lush Life,' and there seemed to be this magic between us. It's like we've been playing together 10 years. You know when it's something special."
James suggested to Neve that they try to capture some of that magic in a recording studio. One phone call later, they were making the album.
"We paid for it ourselves and just let the tapes roll," James said. "Every take was the first take. After about six hours, we went home and didn't think much about it. One thing led to another, the people at Universal in Europe got ahold of it, and the next thing I know everybody's talking about it and they're offering me this record deal."
It's hard to think of a piano/vocal duo album of standards as being innovative, but "For All We Know" indeed has an edge to it. The rawness is daring, and James has an unconventional vocal style, a deep baritone that's soft and elegant and at times haunting -- like a male Billie Holiday, a darker Lou Rawls or in a lot of ways a human adaptation of Coltrane's sax work.
While it hardly represents all of his musical sides, James sees "For All We Know" as a good U.S. introductory album.
"Musicians know: If you can sing a standard well, you can sing anything well," he said.
"I think there's a hunger from the older jazz community, looking for something new, and the younger music community -- myself included -- a lot of the music we grew up with didn't really age too well. Now, you're in your 30s and 40s, you don't necessarily want to put on some hip-hop when you're sitting down having dinner with your wife."
James' album is definitely better suited for such an occasion than N.W.A. or Biggie.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658