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August 31, 2008

interview with José James…
This time he has been interviewed by Philippe Coicou, a deejay we call Kwak from Brussels dropping black soulful music parties (in Brussels) called Strictly Niceness and has a radioshow that goes by the name of “Back To Niceness“. Philippe took this interview mid-August @ Jazz Middelheim (Festival).


A nearly empty tent at the beginning of the concert, a ¾ filled room and a standing ovation at the end ; Jose James blew the Middelheim Jazz audience away. Jazz vocalist with a bboy stance, Mr James went through his influences all along a very tight (but too short) show. After which we sat down for a little chat about jazz, hip hop and Barack Obama. Meet this young man and his strong beliefs.

Philippe Coicou : Don’t you think it is quite hard for a traditionalist audience like this one to understand a young man like you doing jazz with a bboy attitude ?

Jose James : I think so … on the surface, yes , maybe … but the level of the musicians that I work with and some of the material that we do like John Coltrane’s « Equinox » or Art Blakey’s « Moaning », Freestyle Fellowship’s « Park Bench People »… those tunes make them realize that we know what we are doing as far as jazz is concerned. I think they will listen more closely to the material that is not standard material. Because basically, that’s what we are trying to do. Break down on the traditional point of view about jazz singers… Doing a complete set of jazz standards is great but my generation did not grow up on that. We grew up with hip hop so we want to pay respect to the tradition while moving it forward at the same time.

PC : Why choose jazz music when most of black american kids like you choose hiphop ?

JJ : Jazz has got me. That’s it. It has a very special place in my heart. It is a meaningful music. I didn’t think « I want to be a jazz singer », I’d just listen to the stuff … When I got into Coltrane, I thought « Waow I want to hear a jazz singer doing this stuff ». But I couldn’t find anybody to do it. So, I decided to write lyrics myself for fun. You know, as a kid, you are crazy. You think that anything impossible is just normal. So I did it. And people started hearing it and reacted saying « oh ! this boy has some talent ». So for me, it was really natural. Like I said, I listened to all types of hip hop, all types of music and I started getting into jazz. To me it was like « oh ! this is where that sample came from » when listening to hip hop bands that were into jazz. And it made me want to get into jazz even more.

PC : Do you listen to all types of jazz ? Free jazz as well ?

JJ : Oh yes. I really love Dolphy’s « Out to lunch ». Pure masterpiece. I love anything by Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, … All the greats … All the way back to Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole … People don’t realize how influential Nat King Cole was for example, he influenced Miles’ approach, he influenced Ray Charles, … The thing about jazz is that you might listen to someone like Nat King Cole and think that is nothing but an old time jazz singer but you have to realize that he was Ray Charles’ biggest influence. Ray Charles himself changed the landscape of soul music. Think of how many peoplewere influenced by Ray Charles … D Angelo, Stevie Wonder and so many more … These are the roots.

PC : How did you connect with Gilles Peterson and Brownswood Recordings ?

JJ : Gilles happened to have a residency at Cargo in London. I was there to do a vocal jazz competition. I went over with a hundred EP’s and started to handling them out all over London and one got to Gilles. Then , I went back to New York and he listened to it. It had « Equinox » and « The dreamer » on it … He liked it, told me he’d start a new label and asked me if I was interested in doing an album on that label. I was like « Are you serious ? With a legend like GP ? On his new label ? ». Here is an offer someone like me cannot refuse (he laughs). My whole world changed.

PC : Do you agree with all the remixes done of your songs ? Do you agree with transforming your songs into « an average dance music track » ?

JJ : I think it’s dope basically.The more the remix tranforms the song, the better it is. It takes the song to another level. To me, remixing is an artform in itself. A lot of people have had difficult times remixing my songs because my voice is pretty strong and the music quite specific. I have to say that the « Desire » remix by Moodyman is nothing but ridiculous. It should be coming out quite soon. I just heard it, I was like « Woooweeeee ». It represent that higher form I was talking about. As far as Simbad is concerned, we worked together on that remix. He is my homeboy. I love remixes because it brings my voice to another space. It is in the clubs where I’d like to go myself. The Plastic People in London, Cargo, … These are clubs I’d go to hang out. I think that jazz can’t afford to be so apart anymore, it has to be in clubs, to be close to what real people do. So, yes, I love this remix thing.

PC : I’ve been asking this to every black artist I’ve met lately. What is your opinion on Senator Barack Obama ? Does he stand any chance in the presidential run this year ?

JJ : Oh yes ! More than a chance actually. I think that we are in a crucial tipping point in the world obviously. More and more americans realize that after eight years of this (he hesitates) … regime, their choice to support Senator Obama as a Commander in chief of their world is valuable, has brought its fruits. They think « I don’t have healthcare, I lost my house and my job, we had Katrina, 9/11 and all the difficult situations this country’s been in and it is not getting any better. ». The opportunity to vote for somebody who embodies the spirit of JF Kennedy makes people want to overcome their races to vote for that man.

PC : Do you think that the whole of America is ready for a black President ?

JJ : Definitely not. But I think that enough of America doesn’t want another Georges W. Bush. It’s a strong will… Obama is smart because he uses technology. He caucuses very well. He works hard at building bases of people who believe in his vision, who support his vision. He has raised more money than any candidate before him in the American history. It is quite an achievement. That represents a lot of support coming from many people. Most of the donations are made by the average american people who are giving small amounts of money. Obama is going to take it and we’ll have a new face for America (he hits his head as a sign of hope).

PC : What’s your opinion on those artists (like Q Tip for example) who are getting involved in this campaign ? Would you get involved in it?

JJ : Let’s say that if I was asked to do anything, I’d definitely do something. It is important to take a stand and let your fanbase and community know that you do and what’s important to you. When I saw Toni Morrison’s response endorsing Obama, I thought « ok, she is one of our most important writer in the world. Period. Not only black or American. ». To see a great mind endorsing something like this is dope. There is no way around « artist – political ». It is still political. If you listen to what 50 Cents, Lil Wayne or Jay Z say, it is still political . Whatever they are saying. Whether they are talking about money, cars and being in clubs, it is still economics, it has an impact on their community. It is important to hear them take a stand and say that « yes, this man is important and this is why ». So, to have such an intellect as Q Tip saying this is relevant. We need to get the black vote. Because people’s hopes and dreams were killed by this regime and people say that they are not going to vote because nothing is ever going to change. Dead Prez say they have no hope in this system. But this has to change. We might have the first eligible Afro Amercian man ever. So it is time to vote. Or shut your mouth up forever.

PC : You have been covering hiphop artists like Freestyle Fellowship. Could you quote five hip hop tracks that you would like to cover ?

JJ : It is difficult. I thought about it after I did Fresstyle Fellowship thinking it would be a dope thing for jazz because people don’t really do hip hop things. Jamie Cullum did that Pharell thing called « Frontin » which was pretty cool. It brought that kind of vibe into the international consciousness. There are a lot of songs from the Talib Kweli’s first album « Reflection eternal » that I would love to do. The problem being that he wrote from his point of view. But it is so personnal because hip hop artists write from their own perspective. We now know that the jazz standards were written for Broadway and for a changing cast of artists to sing them. The keys were pretty cool and you could transpose it easily an dit was songs. Rap is super specific. It is talking about « this is my story » and it is difficult to take somebody’s story. It is a bigger challenge to take on someone’s own perspective and interpret that. Rappers don’t rap other people’s stuff. That’s where jazz and hip hop are different. You never see an mc cover somebody else’s stuff. The Freestyle Fellowship was perfect because it is based on Freddie Hubbard and it is a great story.

PC : Would you cover a Public Enemy song for example ?

JJ : Maybe. It has to be respectful. I see covering a hip hop song as covering a Marvin gaye tune. It has to be really dope otherwise nobody is ever going to care. Then what’s the point ? I love Public Enemy, Dead Prez, Mos Def or Talib Kweli. All of what they say is dope to me. But I’m really hesitant about doing such things wondering whether it would interest anybody. I don’t even know if I’d like to hear such things. If I went to a jazz concert and the dude would play « Umi says », I would be like « sit down and shut up man,it’s Mos Def’s song ». You know, a lot of people don’t like the fact that I did « Park Bench People ».

PC : Who are the artists you are following lately ?

JJ : I love Flying Lotus. To me , he is one of the illest artist for now. He is amazing. Madlib is dope too. I love Kweli. I wish Andre 3000 would come back and do a hip hop album. A lot of people I love are not doing music at the moment. Andre, Mos Def and even Big Boi are acting. These are signs of the times. Jean Grae is dope. I like M.I.A a lot even if people consider she is not a rapper. There is that Brooklyn girl called TK Wonder that not many people know that is absolutely dope. You’re going to hear a lot about her in the near future.

PC : Thank you very much.