José JamesNo Beginning No End 2
Rainbow Blonde Records

I first came across José James away back in the day.  It was a hot day in Montréal, and it was the peak of the JazzFest.  Me and my girlfriend, now my wife, were wandering around looking for something to happen when the skies opened as they only can in a Montréal summer.  And then the rains ended, and the city became an urban sauna.  The humidity from the drying streets and concrete of the Quartier des spectacles met with the heat and humidity in the air, and, Christ, it was steamy.  We were near one of the big stages, set on rue Jeanne-Mance at the intersection with av. du Maisonneuve, outside of the Places-des-Arts. A few years later, this would be made into the main stage, once the landscaping along Jeanne-Mance was completed, and the Arcade Fire played here in front of a gazillion people.

José James took the state on that hot summer day, and he immediately dug into his steamy, sexy R&B, which was not my usual kind of music.  But this was transcendent, it was R&B, it was hip hop, it was funk, it was soul, and it was rock’n’roll too.  He was an incredible presence on the stage.  We slow danced through the whole set, and when we got home, we bought his then-new album, Blackmagic, on iTunes.  And we played the hell out of that summer and fall, before the cold, vicious Montréal winter set in and hot, steamy music didn’t seem to fit.

I still play that album a fair bit, but I have to admit, I lost sight of James over the past decade.  And then this came through my inbox.  I immediately pressed play.  Damn.  His sound has evolved, of course, over the past ten years.  All the same influences are there, but there’s a greater Prince and D’Angelo, and 60s soul vibe here.  A lot of acoustic guitars, fat-arsed basslines, percussion, and a driving beat.  But his voice is the same, sweet as honey and oozing sex appeal.  This is music to get down to.

And he brings in some heavyweights No Beginning No End 2 (part 1 came out in 2013).  We get the brilliant jazz trumpet player Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, R&B and jazz singer Ledisi, soul singer Cecily (who has this wicked old school voice), Aloe Blacc, Eric Truffaz, and a dozen people besides.

The result is a beautiful, soulful, funky record.  The album opens with the beautiful ‘I Need Your Love,’ which features aTunde Adjuah and Ledisi.  Over a simple acoustic guitar, we get 70s soul reeds, and then James and Ledisi singing a sweet love song before the drums and bass kick in, and James takes over the vocals, singing to his girl, they ways in which she moves him and all she brings into his world.  The stuttering two-step bass drives the track, with no doubt. aTunde Adjuah’s trumpet is almost triumphal here, as it takes us out the back door, with that sweet little guitar accompanying it, as if they’ve joined hands and they’re skipping off into the fields of love.

From there, we’re into the boppy ‘You Know What I Want,’ where that acoustic guitar drives the rhythm over a thick bass line and organic-sounding drums, as James tells her that she makes everything all right, and asks her to shake that thang.

He gets around to a cover of ‘Just the Way You Are,’ the Billy Joel version, not Bruno Mars.  I hate this song. Hate it.  I cannnot freaking stand Billy Joel. A few months ago on Facebook, I was part of a discussion debating whether or not his music constitutes a crime of humanity.  But, when José James takes this song, built up around that bass and a funky organic drumline, some piano, and a muted electric guitar in the background, and most importantly, his voice, this song is transformed from perhaps the worst song of the 1970s into a beautiful, funky song that makes me glad to be alive.

‘Nobody Knows My Name’ is a gospel-influenced track, complete with the hand claps, as James sings about falling his knees and the darkness, and the fact she’s gone and there’s no  more sunshine.  Eventually, the drums and funk arrive, and she, in the person of Laura Mvula, responds, over a jazzy piano bit, delivered by virtuoso Kris Bowers.  As the drums and bass tumble, crash, and fall behind Bowers’ solo, we’re transported back to the 50s in NYC, on a dark, shady night.  When James takes the vocals back, we go back to the gospel, and then Mvula joins him and sing about their heart , soul, music, and life is complete, there is no more darkness.

‘Saint James’ is almost 70s AOR, but James is too skilled a musician and singer to ever fall into that trap, as we’ve seen with ‘Just the Way You Are.’  The album ends with the slow burner, ‘Oracle,’ featuring Eric Truffaz and Hind Zahra.  Truffaz’s trumpet is mournful and sad, as James sings about searching God and a way to make his life better, and a way to find his way home to her.  Zahra adds her vocals singing about needing her soul to be free.  Her voice is in the vein of Bille Holliday, though she has more range, and her voice is sweeter.  A beautiful little guitar bit pops up in and between their vocals.

A decade on since I last came across José James, he has released what is going to be one of my favourite albums this year.  It is gentle, beautiful, and gorgeous from start to finish.

No Beginning No End 2 is out tomorrow.