José James on Ice-T, moving forward, and stone-cold jazz

José James plays The Independent Sat/26.

By Micah Dubreuil

You might not be alone if you do a double-take when hearing José James’ new single for the first time. The song, “EveryLittleThing,” off the singer’s forthcoming album on Blue Note Records (While You Were Sleeping, out June 10), recalls a grinding club hit more than the effortless mix of jazz and neo-soul that made him famous. It is a surprise, to say the least -- the driving, electric sound is nothing like the mellow and easy cool of his previous record, No Beginning No End, released in 2013.

And that’s just fine with James. The 36-year-old singer is a perpetual denier of expectations. He was born and raised in Minneapolis, maybe not the first city that comes to mind when you think of jazz. After appearing as a finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition in 2004, James released two albums with a heavy influence of electronic house music, produced by British DJ Giles Peterson. His third album was a duo set of jazz standards with pianist Jef Neve, but it wasn’t until he recorded the groove-based single for No Beginning No End that he was signed to the legendary Blue Note Records.

That album and platform brought him to a broader audience worldwide, compelling listeners with its sophisticated grooves and his rich tenor voice. The presence of some of the modern messiahs of cool (the band included Grammy-winning keyboardist Robert Glasper and bassist Pino Palladino -- the later revered for his work on D’Angelo’s Voodoo), cemented James’ place at the forefront of the hip young jazz and soul scene.

But even on that album there were hints of a broader agenda. Landing right in the middle of the record was a track that could only be described as guitar-driven acoustic pop, a left turn in a career of left turns. Perhaps the defining trait of his generation is the habitual rejection of genre boundaries, and James has no intention of letting up. As part of his tour to promote the new record, James will hit The Independent Saturday, April 26. We spoke over the phone while he was in Chicago.

San Francisco Bay Guardian You're on tour previewing your new album which, based on the single "EveryLittleThing," has a very different sound from your previous work. What was the inspiration to go in this direction?

José James A lot of people don’t understand the lifespan of a project. It was three years from the start of writing No Beginning No End to the last tour. By that point we had gotten really comfortable with the material. I wanted more energy. I love neo-soul and R&B, but I wanted to go back to how I used to feel about music as a teenager, when it was all about the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and Nirvana.

SFBG For this album you’ve started writing on guitar. What sparked that decision?

JJ The guitar came back into my life when I was recording the song “Sword + Gun” in Paris with Hindi Zahra (off No Beginning) because we didn’t have a band at that session. It’s how we came up with the initial riff. From that moment on I thought: “I should play guitar again.”

SFBG What’s different about the band on this tour?

JJ No horns, just keys, bass, drums and guitars. Almost everybody is doubling. If they’re not alternating on two instruments they’re singing as well. It really feels like a band now, instead of just a jazz band.

SFBG Every album you make sounds really different. Is this an intentional decision or product of musical exploration?

JJ I think it’s both. I would never be happy just doing the same thing. Whatever I release an album I have to tour it for a year, maybe two, which is a long time. Coming from a jazz background I really need things to be fresh night after night, so it has to be material that can grow.

After working on No Beginning No End for three years, I had explored every option in a hip-hop/groove/neo-soul/jazz project that I wanted to do. It was the same with Miles and Coltrane: they would exhaust all the possibilities of a certain style, so moving on wasn’t really a choice. It’s not like I’m sitting there thinking “I’m going to mess up people’s heads with the next one” -- it just kind of happens like that. For me it’s such a natural progression, but when you release a single or album it takes people by surprise, especially if they haven’t been with you for the journey.

SFBG How has the response been so far?

JJ It’s been really great. I think people are surprised by the sound and hearing me in that sound on Blue Note Records. It was cool of them to drop "EveryLittleThing” as a single. People are curious when they hear it -- it makes them more interested in what the album’s going to sound like. I think honestly it’s the best album I’ve ever made. The songwriting and production are way above anything I’ve ever done, so I’m super excited.

SFBG So Blue Note has been supportive of your decision to make this kind of music?

JJ There are a lot of people who work at Blue Note. Don Was is super supportive and he’s the president, so that energy flows from the top down. There are definitely some stone-cold jazz people, both at the label and in the community, but honestly Blue Note hasn’t been a stone-cold jazz label for a long time. I think the single took everybody by surprise, especially because they were so in love with “No Beginning No End,” which is an easy album to fall in love with.

SFBG There’s a young generation of Blue Note musicians (yourself, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Takuya Kuroda, etc.) that are redefining the terms of modern jazz. Do you feel like you guys are part of a community, in terms of exploring and expanding what jazz can be today?

JJ Yeah, absolutely, we all help each other along. It’s just a generational shift. It’s not such a huge deal for us; I don’t even know if it’s expansion. Hodge and Glasper play with Maxwell, and they play with Mos Def, and then they play their own stuff. It’s just the normal reality of musicians of that level now. We just want to play music. It’s different for me, because I’m not an instrumentalist, so it always comes under my name and that brings a little bit of pressure, you know what I mean? But it’s a cool scene and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

SFBG Do you expect to reach a wider audience with the new sound?

JJ I mean, that’s always the goal for anything, really. I think there’s a core José James fan who understands I’m going to do something different on every album. With each album I definitely hope to bring in different people. When I did Blackmagic, I connected with Flying Lotus and other DJs and producers. It’s not necessarily a conscious effort but the music takes it in different directions. We’re still playing some jazz clubs in the US -- which is kind of funny, hearing a song like “EveryLittleThing” in a jazz club. You’d be surprised: we played at a jazz club in Boston two nights ago and people loved it. It’s all in the presentation. I don’t start with that song. I lead people to it so they understand it musically.

SFBG What shows did you go see when you were growing up?

JJ Mostly I would see any hip-hop show I could get to, like Das EFX or De La Soul or basically anybody who came through Minneapolis. It was a good music city to grow up in; First Avenue was still pretty fresh and Prince had a club downtown where he would play sometimes. I remember seeing Ice-T perform “Colors,” and he came out for the second set and did the Body Count stuff. It was cool to see Ice-T do heavy metal. I think people forget about that because now it’s so straight-laced: bands just do one thing. But back then people were really mixing it up in cool ways. I remember Digable Planets touring with horn players.

SFBG Did you listen to jazz?

JJ I didn’t see jazz live, but once I discovered the archives – Blue Note, Prestige, impulse! – I turned into a crazy record-buyer. I bought everything I could and became obsessed with getting the whole catalogue. It was something that nobody else knew about at my school, and I thought I was that much cooler because I was checking out all the music that Q-Tip and those guys were sampling.

SFBG What do you think about the future of jazz?

JJ Jazz is a at place where it's going to be firmly museum-music, and there's something to be said that as much as people can hate on new music, it's music that people like. It speaks to them. This is the point where jazz artists need to decide whether we are going to be keepers of the flames or we’re going to stay current. I know that people like Herbie Hancock or Quincy Jones were able to take their jazz skills and make amazing music. Anytime I listen to “Off The Wall” or any of the Al Green stuff I think to myself: a jazz mind is responsible for this.

SFBG Do you have any influences that might surprise people?

JJ Kurt Cobain. I know it’s the anniversary of his death, but he’s one of the artists who really had an impact on me at an early age. His influence is like a John Coltrane or a Marvin Gaye. I think the unplugged album that Nirvana made shows what a great band they were and what a great songwriter he was.That’s what I’m focusing on right now. More so than a sound I really want to write great songs that have meaning and really mark a time and place.

José James
With Moonchild
9pm, $18
The Independent
628 Divisadero, SF