Full disclosure: I've been a fan of José James since 2011, and he quickly became a performer, composer, and producer whose work I found as inspiring as glorious. I'm no blithe fan girl, however, and Mr. James is one who demands our expectations are always - and appropriately - high when he performs. So, I happily bought "José James: New York 2020 (Live)", without trepidation, because some people were made for 2020, with its constant upheaval and traumas. And José James is one of those people, as this two-disc album evinces.
To experience José James is - whenever possible - to witness him performing live. His vast repertoire is equivalent to his multi-genre existence. This is to say he is not a Hip Hoppa who performs jazz, nor is he an R&B crooner who infuses the blues, and he's definitely not a pop singer for whom electronica is second nature. There is not a word of which I am aware that encapsulates all of the beats, tunes, and words José writes, sings, and plays. Let's not label him, and unintentionally narrow him and what he does. He is José James, and that is enough. Produced, performed, and recorded during the worst global pandemic in more than a century, "José James: New York 2020" (Live) feels like a pen pal letter from a friend, the inclusion at a party where only those who really get it are in attendance, and - stick with me here - a present that we were waiting for a long time, though we don't recall having ever asked for something, so we were gratefully, heartfeltly surprised when we receive it.
I can't recall an album - live or reissued - comprised of songs that were already released, and each one is new in sound and impact. While the world has been living with heightened everything (and it's been difficult to lower the volume on all the feels, let alone turn them off), we don't need vanilla marshmallow things when life is insane. We need what José gifted us: intense, heartfelt, framed for now performances by artists who headline and inspire on their own and in ensembles.
This is a good time to share the remarkable musicians who appear with José on these albums (Disc 1 recorded live at Levon Helm Studios, Disc 2 at (le) poisson rouge): Taali (vocals). J. Hoard (vocals), Big Yuki (piano, electric piano, organ, synth), Marcus Machado (guitar), Ben Williams (bass and vocals), and Jharis Yokely (drums). While José is the lead vocals, each song is made whole by the instrumentalists. Nothing competes for space, for sound, for our attention. And on a track like "Turn Me Up", everyone on the stage shines without detracting from their family.
José distinguishes himself from industry compatriots in a few ways. One of those is what sings about is extracted from his life, and not at the expense of his audience having no idea what he's talking about. Whether or not you're in love right now, regardless of your romantic relationship sitch, and whatever is going right or wrong in your life, you're going to feel snippets (or more) from your life when you hear "Saint James", "Code", and "I Found a Love" (with Taali).
The jury's not back yet on whether professional artists, and all who have a platform from which to broadcast, have a responsibility to bring truth, justice, and activism to their audiences. Whether it's their responsibility or not, the integrity in José's music is as much an ingredient as are downbeat, heart, and the aforementioned all the genres he knows, plays, and lives. Nowhere better does this appear than in "Park Bench People", a song he originally recorded in 2008, making it his own without taking anything away from Freestyle Fellowship, a Los Angeles-based rap group who premiered the song in 1993, and "Turn Me Up", which is a track that provides reasons why we have the word "artivism". There's nothing preaching or finger wagging about José's messages and intentions, and there's as much gospel feel as there is club vibe in "Turn Me Up". That so many songs have "Love" in their titles might prompt one who doesn't know José's work to think this is a touchy-feely album. It will touch you, and you'll feel things, though these songs get into the complexity of love, not how it appears on the surface and during the nonsense that is Valentine's Day. You'll listen to "I Need Your Love" and want to call the ex you've never quite let go of, the friend you like more than as a friend, or reach out to your partner and tell them you love them. Period.
Is it possible to want to stomp your foot, shake your body, and fight back tears on the same song? Yes. I won't tell you how many of those songs simultaneously prompted those for me. You'll have your own. Because you need to buy this album on disc, so you can see Janette Beckman's stunning photographs, absorb all the production details, and read what José wrote.
Thank you, Prof. James.