Jose James knows how to strike a balance.
A balance between hometown folksiness and passionate professionalism, between new and old material, between rehearsed and improvised – and most of all between styles, blending jazz, soul, hip-hop and rock into his own distinctive style.
In front of a full house at the Cedar Cultural Center Monday, the Minneapolis-reared, Brooklyn-based James previewed his forthcoming fifth album, “While You Were Sleeping,” due in June.
The spare, spacey “U r the 1” hadn’t quite come together yet but the rest of the new material impressed, including the atmospheric “While You Were Sleeping,” “4 Noble Truths” with its swirling intensity and an elegant reading of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful.”
Speaking of Green, a number dubbed “Al Green Remix” was one of the night’s highlights as James kept singing lines from such Green songs as “Love and Happiness” and “I’m Still in Love with You” as if they were samples and he was a hip-hop DJ scratching the samples. Later, during a free-wheeling 40-minute version of “Park Bench People,” he sampled a little Nirvana and also let his four first-rate musicians take solos.
Other older numbers stood out, including the Adele-evoking, pop-soul “Come to My Door” and the closing ballad “Do You Feel.” Both tunes came from 2013's "No Beginning No End," which was my top album of last year.
And there was plenty of time for hometown chatter about having worked across the street at Depth of Field, having done a pre-concert interview on KFAI and having turned down a part in a South High production of “West Side Story” because it was in the American, not Puerto Rican, gang.
But Monday was truly about the music and James’ inspired balance and blend. In his nearly two-hour performance, the versatile and deeply talented singer, 36, demonstrated the warmth of Lou Rawls, the intimacy of Bill Withers, the intellect of Gil Scott-Heron and the adventurousness of Sly Stone.
James’ mother (who was in the audience), father, the folks at Minneapolis’ South High (some of whom were there) and James’ mentor Louis Alemayehu (who was there), among others, certainly did right by him.