Take a well-known Billie Holiday song from the 1940s, like “God Bless the Child.” Salt it with hip-hop and soul, sing it in a mahogany baritone, surround yourself with musicians who get what you’re doing, and you have a 21st-century version. You’ve just brought Billie Holiday into the present.
Due Tuesday on Blue Note Records, the iconic jazz label, José James’ “Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday” is his thoroughly modern tribute to the revered jazz vocalist he calls “my musical mother.”
Recorded with three of today’s top jazz musicians — Jason Moran on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Eric Harland on drums — it’s an album made with gratitude, respect and the belief that more than 50 years after Holiday’s death, her life and her music are still meaningful.
James was a child in Minneapolis when he first heard Holiday sing.
“It’s my first memory. I was 3. My mom had a whole stack of LPs on the floor, and I was pulling them out, and I remember coming to Billie Holiday and just staring at her and that flower [in her hair]. … I had [my mom] play it, and her voice was something I never forgot.”
He rediscovered Holiday in high school and listens to her every day. “She taught me everything I know about jazz music and singing.”
A visit home in January
Now based in New York, James was in Minneapolis in January, previewing his new album at the Dakota.
In the house were friends from back in the day, including pianist Bryan Nichols, who remembers hanging with James and spinning albums when both were kids. And Denny Malmberg, James’ music teacher at South High School, a man James credits for putting him on the path to a life he could only dream of then.
As a teen, James performed with Malmberg at Fireside Pizza in Richfield, which still features live jazz (with Malmberg) on Mondays and Wednesdays. James went on to study jazz at New York’s New School and was a finalist in the prestigious 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocalist Competition.
After two albums on the London label Brownswood and one on Verve, he signed to Blue Note in 2012. He’s been touring almost nonstop ever since. “Yesterday I Had the Blues” has already been released in Japan, where he has a huge fan base.
Nichols calls James’ success “cosmic justice. … Even as a kid, he was always pushing it, reaching for things beyond his capabilities.”
Blue Note president Don Was remembers his first meeting with James. “Some folks brought him to my attention almost as soon as I started working there, and we had lunch. I was knocked out by his music, which I thought had a visionary sense of where music was going. He seemed to be on the cusp of something major, which I still believe.”
Blue Note has pretty much let James do what he wants. His first album for the label, “No Beginning No End,” was mostly finished when he brought it to them. For his second, “While You Were Sleeping,” he was given carte blanche. Neither is what you would call a jazz album. “No Beginning No End” is an eclectic mix of R&B, hip-hop and neo-soul. “While You Were Sleeping” leans toward indie rock.
“We don’t discriminate based on what modes or scales you approach music in,” Was said. “It’s really how expressive and soulful you are. The people we gravitate to are artists who reach out and touch you. … [José] has found a specific approach to music that transcends genre classification.”
Was said it didn’t come as a surprise when James told him his plan for an all-Billie Holiday album. “The only thing that would surprise me is for him to want to repeat the last thing he did.” Does he think we might get more jazz from James in the future? “Of course I do. God knows when.”
Artist and activist
The idea for the Holiday album had long been on James’ mind. This year was the right time for two reasons. It’s the 100th anniversary of her birth (jazz singer Cassandra Wilson will release her Billie Holiday tribute, “Coming Forth by Day," on April 7). And for James, it was also about current events. “With all the injustices happening right now, I felt it was important to remember not only a jazz artist but a social activist and a feminist. … She took a radical stance on politics and gender.”
And race, nowhere more than in the song “Strange Fruit,” which Holiday first sang and recorded in 1939. Following a fine and sensitive “Body and Soul,” a bouncy, up-tempo “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and a bluesy “God Bless the Child,” James ends his album with the searing and profoundly disturbing song about racist lynchings in the South.
He doesn’t make it easy on himself. He’s solo on this one, with no band. The track begins with a sorrowful, dirge-like chant — his own voice recorded, looped and layered — and spare hand claps. After a few “yeahs” and “mmms” and “Lord, lords,” he sings those awful lyrics: “Black body swinging in the Southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Was remembers the recording session. “It was a very heavy moment. It took about an hour for him to do it, to layer it all up. There was a Japanese film crew shooting a documentary while we were there, and he cleared the room. No one was allowed to shoot it, and no one was hanging out. It was deep.”
“Strange Fruit” is even more of a gut punch in live performance — for the audience and the artist — but James steels himself and stands alone on stage. He starts in silence and does the looping live. His voice rises and keens. It’s powerful and almost unbearable.
“It’s not a tribute to Billie Holiday unless ‘Strange Fruit’ is included, because that robs her of a very important part of her legacy,” he said. “And if you’re gonna do it, it has to move people. …
“I’ve already heard a lot about it. People have said, ‘Racism has been very intellectual with me, but hearing that song made it personal. I cried.’ And that’s what I want. I want people to cry about it.”
SEE A VIDEO
about the making of the album at http://ow.ly/FZKf0.