Concert Reviews

José James Was Alluring But Crowd Distant at the Kessler

José James With Dustin Cavazos and Buffalo Black Kessler Theater Tuesday, June 24, 2014

By Thierry Peremarti

José James' 2010 album, For All We Know, is an authentic jazz album that's won its share of jazz prizes. But although the jazz community has accepted James as one of theirs, you can't exactly call James a jazz singer. Why? Because he's not one anymore. James isn't interested in being a jazz singer; he has turned the page, moved on. And you know what? He's right.

Part of his audience, the one that loves that jazzy soulful sound that is soooo jazz chic, might still consider him to be a cool jazz singer. But let's not kid ourselves. Let's embrace singer-songwriter José James for who he is: an artist who defies labeling. Period.

Like others of his generation, including pianist Kris Bowers, Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding, James cross-pollinates R&B, hip-hop, soul, jazz, folk and indie rock to make his own sound.

Last night's appearance at the Kessler -- an intimate, 90-minute concert attended by a thin crowd of about 100 -- was James' first in Dallas. Backed by four musicians and a vocalist, the 36-year-old singer announced that he was dedicating his performance to his 1-year-old daughter, a move that was no doubt intended to make friends. He sings with his eyes closed for the most part, more keen on introspection than on conquering his public with artificial maneuvering. He's a laid-back performer who lets the music simmer. His soft voice is all coolness and tranquility.

Surprisingly for a New York-based musician, James never hurries, shows no sense of urgency, no sense of danger. He never seems to be singing on the edge. Though he doesn't seem to want to show any vulnerability, he's all about romanticism and feelings delivered in an effortless groove. There's definitively some sexiness in his slow-cooked magic, something intoxicating. James' is a vibe that's impossible to explain.

But the Kessler audience seemed detached from it all. The interaction between artist and public was at times dormant. (Though a song dedicated to guitarist and songwriter Tennie Hodges, who passed away on June 22, elicited some reaction.) James, who has said in the past that his music "is just music to have fun to" and encourages people to dance at his concerts, confessed he was surprised by the quietness of the Dallas concertgoers. Naturally, the crowed reacted with a few screams, as James jumped into the sweet and catchy "Come To My Door," full of Stevie Wonder-esque harmonies. The repetitive sequence of the saturated guitar on "Anywhere U Go," overall a very close interpretation of the studio version, got a timid reception, however.

On "U R The 1," a gentle song about love and making love with faux-chaotic drumming that seems liable to crumble at any moment, the singer made himself even more seductive before making a surprisingly abrupt ending. Next was "Every Little Thing," a pop-rock, screaming guitar refrain that built up to an obsessive and repetitive sequence. The groovy "Trouble" from 2012 and "Dragon," a relaxed pop song with beautiful vocal harmonies from James' new album, elicited the most enthusiastic response. However, the ambient and hypnotic reprise of Nirvana's "Something in The Way" felt a little contrived; in the end, it didn't add much to the set.

By contrast, the 2008 track "Park Bench People" was an appealing reinvention of the song. "I'm free-styling," the singer announced, as he jumped into a risk-taking rendition that revved up the audience.

On the last song, the slow soul-blues "Do You Feel," a churchy keyboard improvisation was followed by a long bass solo by Solomon Dorsey, who simultaneously sang the notes of his solo. Finally, the crowd exploded, with only a few stealing glances at their lighted phones in the dark.

Still, there were not as many instrumental solos as there might have been, which was a bit of a shame, as James' top-notch, multi-talented band has enough musicianship to play in any context on a very high level. (Kris Bowers, his pianist, is an ex-Juilliard student won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 2011.) It seemed as though James and his crew were more interested in the cohesion of the ensemble and the group sound than their individual expression. Sometimes that made the experience as frustrating as driving a Ferrari at 30 miles an hour.

José James is certainly an eclectic artist with vast musical influences (Lou Rawls, Al Green, Gil Scot-Heron) and his musical journey has been exceptional. He has never hidden his ambition to combine jazz and hip-hop; for him Coltrane is up there next to the Beastie Boys and Billie Holliday next to A Tribe Called Quest. It's a rather refreshing perspective. But blurring the lines, juggling with different vibes and being too eclectic has its risks. As a result, James' genre-stretching formula can sometimes leave the listener empty-handed, unable to process it all.

But he's also an artist who has dared to be himself. Continuously experimenting, he's a contemporary musician turned to the future who keeps redefining himself, and who by now has acquired enough stylistic freedom to grow even more. Let's not even try to guess what new creative direction James will take in the future. Last year, he signed with Blue Note, the historic jazz label that has branched out to pop in the last few years, and the label has given him complete carte blanche.

James says that while he's on this tour, he is writing his sixth studio album. In other words, his creativity is flowing -- gently and surely. And with his considerable flair, taste and finely tuned sensibility, it's easy to imagine the best is yet to come.