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MJF67, Sept. 27-29, 2024


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© Janette Beckman
José James presents 1978
  • Arena Artist
  • Friday, September 27 9:45 pm - 10:45 pm Jimmy Lyons Stage

A jazz artist for the hip-hop generation, José James artfully blurs the lines between traditional and contemporary jazz, hip-hop, soul, funk, pop and rock. He has released 12 critically-acclaimed albums in as many years for labels such as Brownswood, Impulse, Blue Note and his own co-founded Rainbow Blonde Records, and is the recipient of both the Edison Award and L'Académie du Jazz Grand Prix. James has collaborated with many notable artists such as Flying Lotus, Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway, Ledisi, Aloe Blacc and Jason Moran.

A celebrated international performer, James has presented his work at venues such as The Kennedy Center, Hollywood Bowl, Ancienne Belgique and Billboard Live Tokyo, and has performed as a guest artist with McCoy Tyner, Laura Mvula and the Jazz at Lincoln Center, Melbourne Symphony and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestras.

1978 was nothing less than a banner year in music: a meeting and merging of styles, soul, R&B, funk, rock, disco and jazz all freely intermingling on radio waves and dance floors. It was also a year when music from other shores — reggae and African music — made significant inroads into the American scene, and an entirely new way of music-making, fresh from the streets of The Bronx, was just starting to be heard: hip-hop was its name. 1978 was also the year that singer / songwriter / producer José James was born in Minneapolis, and now, significantly, it is the title he has chosen for his twelfth album, released April 5th, 2024.

Unsurprisingly, 1978 is historical, timely, and autobiographical: a double-disc LP featuring nine transcendent tracks that capture José James at a mid-career apex, craftily overlapping soul, hip-hop, jazz and other jazz-adjacent styles. The songs range from the deeply personal intimacy to socially minded and message-driven. The grooves stretch from edgy and resolute, to relaxed and seductive. The performances are supported by a lean-and-lithe lineup of young talent and unexpected collaborators. After recent recordings found the forward-looking singer paying tribute to such iconic singer/songwriters as Billie Holiday, Bill Withers and Erykah Badu, James has returned to a self-focused project relying on his songwriting, bandleading, and — for the first time since The Dreamer (2008) — entirely his own production skills.

“This album’s exciting for me because this is the first time I completely produced every single song — and pre-produced them on Ableton — and not just as sketches,” says James. “There’s a different focus on the Funk and Latin side that’s never been there before, and this is also the first time I’ve really married my hip-hop, Madlib-like sensibility with jazz and my own songwriting, all into one, coherent whole. I’ve experimented with this idea before, but now it’s all come together in a way I’m truly satisfied with.”

1978 is indeed both fully realized and in clear musical focus — markedly consistent in feel and sound. James credits the rhythm section playing on most of the album: guitarist Marcus Machado (who has played with Robert Glasper and Anderson .Paak), keyboardist Chad Selph (Lalah Hathaway, Bilal), bassist David Ginyard (Solange, Blood Orange), drummer Jharis Yokley (Chance the Rapper, Ani DiFranco) and featured guest on various tracks, Latin conguero Pedrito Martinez.

“This kind of band, small and tight, is how I stay connected to my jazz essence,” states James. “They can play anything. Everything we tracked, we did with everyone looking at each other in the studio. “I wanted that live feeling, like we’re discovering it for the first time.”

James notes that this combination of players stood out from the outset — on a live gig at New York City’s Blue Note jazz club in early 2023. “It was pretty undeniable when we came together onstage. Marcus was guesting only for one night and we were doing [Erykah] Badu’s songs. Big Yuki who normally plays keyboards was not available, and Pedrito was available and often isn’t. They just locked into this groove — this funk and soul vocabulary and did not let go. And the way that everything is laid back, in a post-Dilla sort of way. I said to myself, OK, this band is so hot right now. I have to put these guys together in the studio and capture this.”

Material-wise, James had been ready for awhile. He had worked on new songs even while touring behind his albums No Beginning No End 2 and On & On. “Many of the tunes on 1978 began to come together about five years ago. Those ideas evolved, and once we had the group together it all really came together fast.” It was during this period he was introduced to Leon Ware, the Motown songwriter who famously worked with Marvin Gaye in the 1970s. A friendship soon grew into a working relationship.

“I had a writing session with Leon back in 2009 in L.A. at his house in Marina Del Rey. He rolled one and we talked for hours about jazz, Motown and Marvin. At one point in the middle of working on a song he said, ‘you remind me of me.’ That stayed with me. Of course I asked him a million questions because I Want You is my all-time favorite album — relaxed grooves and jazz flavors. I wanted 1978 to feel like Leon and J Dilla had come together and made an album for me.”

James adds that as sexually charged as the opening tracks on 1978 might seem, “there’s a level of vulnerability that I don’t find in today’s R&B. There’s a lot of bragging too, don’t get me wrong, but there’s this idea that it may not happen. Leon was very explicit about how this had changed since his time. ‘We were crooners’, he’d say. ‘We had to seduce the audience, just like the man in the song.’ Now I think it’s much harder to write songs like that and take that path. Leon’s spirit is all over this album for sure.”

Besides Marvin Gaye, James points to the influence of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson as well. “I allowed myself to explore the use of synthesizers more than ever before, and also work on adding ‘ear candy’ to many of the tracks — really putting the studio to work. Besides I Want You, Michael’s Off the Wall, with Quincy’s amazing production, helped inspire ideas for 1978.”

The opening salvo of tracks on 1978 — “Let’s Get It,” “Isis & Osiris,” and “Planet Nine” — lead to the joyous explosion of “Saturday Night (Need You Now)” a standout track that benefits from the in-demand studio experience of bassist Kaveh Rastegar (Bruno Mars, Cee-Lo Green) and compositional touch of Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Talia Billig (Moby, Aloe Blacc). “We had gotten to know each other and so at this point we’re all good friends and were just hanging out at his house and caught a vibe. I think I did tell him like I was looking for 120 BPM kind if thing it all came together like super easy, just the three of us in a room. I wish we had done another one!”

1978 shifts to a deeper gear, especially when Belgian rapper Baloji steps in halfway through “Dark Side of the Sun” and Brazilian vocalist Xenia França adds her voice to “Place of Worship.” “This ‘70s idea of a global black sound was new then and I decided we’re going to have traditionally based musicians from the diaspora on the album as well, but do it in a way that feels global but familiar,” James says.

“Xenia lives like I do between two worlds: the modern world — modern production and songwriting — and a very traditional, spiritual-based Brazilian music. We found ways to transcend language and I love the tradition I have ongoing now in my recordings, a male-female duet. I just met Xenia this year, and Baloji I’ve known through touring since 2013. We were on the same circuit. Our bands fell musically in love with each other and we’d always talked about collaborating.”

1978 is released on Rainbow Blonde Records, the independent label founded by James and Billig in 2018. The inspiration was more than one of economic expediency, as James relates. “It’s really about owning and controlling your own music, and the idea of community — which is why we have other artists besides Taali and me on the label: [bassist] Ben Williams and now Jharis Yokley’s debut. It’s been an honor to find my place as an artist and with A&R as well; definitely Prince and his battle with his record label was a huge influence in our decision to go independent.”

James’s spirit of independence and sense of community points to the poignant political message of the last two tunes on 1978 — “38th & Chicago,” in memory of James’s fellow Minneapolitan, George Floyd; and “For Trayvon,” paying tribute to Trayvon Martin. Both were victims of racially motivated murders that fueled the fire of the #BLM protests of the mid-2010s, and both, for James, underscore an important role in his music-making.

“I think it’s important to get out of your own head and think about yourself in terms of society, and I believe that’s what musicians do brilliantly. We are supposed to act and uplift and hopefully make people ask some questions of themselves. How each musician does this is up to them, and it will always be different. Billie Holiday’s 'Strange Fruit' is not John Coltrane’s 'Alabama' or Oscar Brown Jr.’s 'Brown Baby' or even Dead Prez’s 'Let’s Get Free.' It’s different just like the stories and circumstances are different. Minneapolis situation is not the same as Florida where they have that Stand Your Ground law. I won’t play there any more since that happened to Trayvon Martin."

“I think any Black man in America can relate to either one of these songs. We all have a very personal connection to what happened to these two Black men. I grew up right next to 38th and Chicago, where Floyd was killed by a cop. I was a teenager walking around with a hoodie. I had my share of harassment and got beaten up by strangers.”

José James’s 1978 draws its power from both a timeless relevancy and a deep sense of the personal. It is a richly layered musical statement connecting both to the present day, and to past sounds and styles as well — a sincere and seductive valentine to his love of jazz, soul and hip-hop.