Jazz is an ever expanding art form.
One of American's most precious cultural exports, it has been adapted to become a truly international language. Now a new breed of jazz stars are beginning to deal with the impact of electronic music.
Jose James first emerged as a truly talented vocalist with his debut album 'The Dreamer'. Hushed vocals were matched by downbeat instrumentation which drew on jazz tradition, citing heroes such as John Coltrane.
However on follow up 'Black Magic' the singer has thrown away the rule book. Jose James has worked extensively with Los Angeles beatsmith Flying Lotus, while the singer has added songs by dubstep guru Benga to his live set.
Yet matched with this sense of abandon is an acknowledgement of jazz greats, with Jose James presenting a tribute concert to John Coltrane last year.
ClashMusic caught up with the American singer to talk about the past, present and future of jazz.
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The new material is less traditionally jazz than ‘The Dreamer’ – what prompted this?
I think just meeting Flying Lotus. He asked me to work on a track for ‘Los Angeles’ and that was the beginning. We had made this track called ‘Visions Of Violet’ and we seemed to find a way to move forward. We just kept making tracks – not necessarily for a record, but just for fun. So we made the track ‘Black Magic’ and I thought, “actually this is pretty good”. It happened by default.
I’ve heard that it was actually hip hop which inspired your interest in jazz – is that true?
The more I listen back the more I hear jazz in just about everything during the 90s. From The Beastie Boys to Cypress Hill, obviously A Tribe Called Quest and especially a lot of East Coast hip hop. A lot of it depended on jazz and soul.
Do you see a lot of connections between hip hop and jazz?
I never thought of it in those terms until recently. It was just music. I mean, with A Tribe Called Quest I never thought about those samples until I was older. It’s like a subconscious thing that happens to you.
How did the collaboration with Flying Lotus work?
It was all email. We’re never in the same city at the same time. I’ve only met with him about five times over a couple of years. I met him in Scotland once, then mostly London. We’re both pretty busy, so it was easy if we sent each other about fifteen, twenty tracks or something. Over the course of time he would send me stuff, then I would add some other parts to it. He would write it in Los Angeles or on tour, then I would add vocals in New York. I would work on top of his composition. It went back and forth for a couple of years. The whole process took a couple of years. I started with Lotus and ended with Lotus.
You also re-work a Benga track for ‘Emotions’. How did you become aware of his music?
I’ve been in and out of London since 2007, hanging out with the guys from Brownswood. We’d go down to Cargo, Plastic People and I became aware of the whole dubstep movement. I met Benga at the Worldwide awards two years ago and he was really cool. He got an award for the track ‘Night’ and I just got into from there. Especially FWD and Plastic People. ‘Diary Of An Afro Warrior’ became my favourite record of the year. I listened to it while completing my tour, and it seemed to bring my worlds together. I thought it would be interesting to get a jazz quartet, with very traditional instrumentation and deal with dubstep. I was pretty surprised, but it worked!
Electronic music relies on very precise programming, how did you blend that with improvisation?
We just tried to treat it as new music. One of the greatest strengths in jazz is that it has been absorbing other kinds of music and other cultures in a real honest way – not in a trendy way. I think there’s a generation of jazz based singers and musicians who are a lot more comfortable with the language. A lot of the stuff in the 90s is an uncomfortable blend of hip hop and jazz, or electronic and jazz. To make it sound natural it has to be a second language for you. I was really comfortable with that idea, so it seemed like a natural step for me. Lotus is going the other way, he’s playing a lot of piano these days. I think we’re heading towards an organic state where it just becomes music. Maybe you’ll make it on a laptop, maybe you’ll use an instrument or some kind of blend.
Of course while making the album you always led a tour reinterpreting John Coltrane. What led to this?
That was just like a long-standing dream. I had wanted to do that for fourteen years. I had been quietly working on it for a while, but then I played a show in Brussels opening for Joan As Policewoman. The promoter had read that I wanted to cover Coltrane on ‘The Dreamer’ so he asked me to do a whole Coltrane project. It was a really strange coincidence – or maybe it was just meant to be – but the date I was offered fell on Coltrane’s birthday. I was kind of blown away by that, but it went from one person’s idea of that to a full tour. Most of the venues we did were not hardcore jazz venues, and it was crazy – it was sold out, about a thousand people all for Coltrane. It gave me a lot of inspiration, knowing that there was still an audience for that music.
A lot of people think that Coltrane’s phrasing mimics the human voice – is that something you noticed?
That’s a good point, there’s definitely a connection. The tenor was invented to mirror the human voice in classical music and I now that Coltrane definitely admired singers. I read that he wanted to sing, he wanted to sing a lot. There’s definitely a lot of that vocabulary or phrasing in his music. At some points it’s like he’s talking through the saxophone.
How does the mixture of electronic music and acoustic instruments work in a live setting?
We’ve been experimenting to find a good point. Some of it we’ve enhanced the bass sounds, using effects and compression. Maybe on some dubstep it sounds nice, gives it a club feel. Basically we’ve kept the same flexibility of a live band but added some effects to make the sonic textures really nice. It’s still organic, though.
The album seems very coherent despite the timescale and the different producers etc - how did you achieve that?
I think a lot of it lies in the vocal production. When the tracks were gathered together I really focussed on making it sound like one piece. With the exception of the Lotus track, I did all the production with the vocals and all the music was mixed in New York. Despite using different producers the basic sound of my voice is what links it all together. On some tracks we’re treated the drums a little harder, a little more hip hop because I wanted it to almost sound like MPC. So you won’t know which is the sample and which is live.
Do you have other producers in mind?
I think I’m just open to collaboration with good artists. I’m doing more work for Jazzanova, I’m working on Sinbad’s album right now. I don’t want to be pigeonholed, I just want to make music one way or another.