José James Celebrating Bill Withers in Berlin

José James "Lean On Me"Growing up with the music of Bill Withers, I always thought that “Lean On Me” was the least attractive. Which of course still means that it’s an amazingly great piece of music, coming from the mind of this brilliant artist. And so it was this particular song last night at Neukölln’s Heimathafen where José James stopped by during his huge tour (and its only stop in Germany), which grabbed me the most. José’s voice has become richer, thicker, and really penetrating, resonating through the roof last night. The other piece which had me in tears was the breathtakingly beautiful “Hello Like Before”. I first heard this tune in the late 70s on an album by Ernestine Anderson on Concord Records and didn’t really understand its context. This is another aspect of why this tribute album and show works so well: José’s ability to really put the message of the songs across, to literally feel and live their meanings is one of the strongest assets here.

Listening to his tribute album “Lean On Me”, to be released September 28th on Blue Note and produced by Don Was, I couldn’t think of a better artist to interpret the timeless songs. “Lovely Day” and its heavenly optimistic stance, accompanied by a joyous-sounding Lalah Hathaway, works extremely well. Marcus Strickland is responsible for the intense sax solo on “Just The Two Of Us” (originally recorded by Grover Washington, Jr. and worn out on LP during the early 80s) and Kris Bowers plays pretty cool keys throughout. I think there is not a lot to add to “Use Me” (unless you’re coming up with an elongated funk version which Issac Hayes did in 1973) and the pulsating “Ain’t No Sunshine” is masterly produced with Kris Bowers on ultracool electric keyboard. The folk aspect comes through on “Grandma’s Hands” with the guitar of Brad Allen Williams. It’s a pretty swampy version of the song.

José mentioned Bill Withers during a brief interruption and that he imagined him witnessing the fall of Richard Nixon and that he hopes to be a witness of the fall of Donald Trump, too. Coming back to the album, there are a lot of little extra ditties which come through after the third or fourth listen, like the svelte percussion of Lenny Castro on “Who Is He”. Nate Smith, the drummer on both the record and the live show, showed his love and panache for the music which easily, soothingly mixes jazz, soul, folk, and pop. A truly milestone artist, interpreted by an original, unique singer with a twist. And the Afro suits him well.

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