Morgan James’ life story has the makings of a Broadway musical.
Born in Boise and high-schooled in Modesto, Calif., she went to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City where she studied opera. But she landed on Broadway, in “The Addams Family” and “Motown: The Musical,” among other shows. Then she decided to launch a career as a soul singer.
Promoting her late 2014 “Hunter” album on Epic, James arrived at the Dakota Jazz Club Wednesday for her Twin Cities debut. In her too-short 63-minute second show, she demonstrated considerable potential. She has a special voice, a knack for writing substantive pop-soul songs with her cowriter/guitarist Doug Wamble and the appealing presence of sweet ingénue who’s willing to battle all the challenges of her chosen life in New York City.
“I think I need the devastation,” she said, referring to the rigors of the big city.
She was chatty in a likable way, whether talking about braving the Minnesota cold in January (she said she was Norwegian, Grunerud is her given surname) or getting L.A. Reid, the boss at Epic, to reach out to Prince for permission for James to record Prince’s “Call My Name” (from “Musicology”).
The two Prince pieces (“How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” was the other) were among James’ stand-out efforts because, despite her rich upper register and potent screams, she was more impressive the softer she sang. Plus Wamble added some nasty guitar fills to “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.”
James' strongest original was “I Want You,” a slow-burn, emotion-filled, Bonnie Raitt-evoking number that started with James humming and ended with a remarkable melismatic coo. “The Sweetest Sound” was a deliciously understated medium-tempo soul croon, equal parts D’Angelo and Minnie Riperton.
There’s no question that James, 33, has an alluring voice. But her diction was all Broadway and no church. Every word was enunciated clearly and seldom infused with sanctified soulfulness.
As she explained, she’s studied Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Prince, D’Angelo and other great soul artists. But studying is no substitute for living with this kind of music in performance. Or as she put it before the encore: “You are what you listen to and you’re only as good as the knowledge you fill it with.”
She knows what she’s talking about. Because her encore reading of Aretha’s “Baby, I Love You” was like she lived it, wonderfully transcendent, a perfect arrangement with Wamble’s slide electric guitar (the rest of her quartet sat this one out) complementing her suddenly transformed Southern soul voice. It was the only number all night in which she got lost in her singing. And it showed just where this remarkable talent could go and possibly how her life story could unfold.