José James Performing Songs from his Billie Holiday Tribute in Berlin

José James "Yesterday I Had The Blues"One of the songs José James performed last night during his brief showcase concert at Berlin’s Apple store on Kurfürstendamm was the moving ballad “Tenderly”. It is one of nine tracks from the fine and fitting tribute to the singer he discovered at a very early age in life.

Earlier that day, we talked about the seminal singer and her artistry. “I feel like Billie Holiday could have played the saxophone too. And if she would have played the sax, it would have sounded like the way she sang. Lester Young is her counterpart….For me it’s even more interesting because Lester Young also influenced Marvin Gaye, who is one of my other heroes. Billie has amazing choices and her notes and her understanding of harmony, her time. I think she has the best phrasing in Jazz. Everybody is influenced by her, from Frank Sinatra down. Everyone who hears her has to change their style or adjust their style. She could really do everything in Jazz. She sang on the beat, she sang ahead of the beat, she sang behind the beat and she really revolutionized what is means to be an improvisational Jazz singer.”

José shows his exceptional and unique style on his album “Yesterday I Had The Blues – The Music of Billie Holiday” on a very stripped-down, intimate and “kind of blue-ish” setting with Jason Moran on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. And he too is playing with phrasing and colors, like on the bluesy “Fine and Mellow” for example, a song that was written by Holiday herself.

So why did he actually choose to record this tribute album in a piano trio setting? “I had started the project with a live group and I did have horns on that because I wanted to recreate that atmosphere of the 1950s with Ben Webster and Harry Edison and what I realized is that that kind of playing doesn’t exist anymore. … It’s like a very contrapuntal, almost classical style interweaving the voice and another melodic instrument. It’s very difficult and I don’t think anybody today in my generation can really do that. Once I realized it was sort of unattainable and what I really wanted to capture was the mood that she created, I said I take away everything and strip it down to the bare essentials cause to my knowledge I don’t think she ever recorded a piano trio album and I thought that was kind of cool and you can really hear everything, you can really hear every nuance. It makes you feel like you’re in the room with us.”

You can hear that in the extremely intimate and elegantly arranged “Body and Soul” for example where Jason Moran is sort of like the shadow accompanying José on this very intense and ambitious reading. Elsewhere, Jason adds lots of little splashes and snippets into the songs like right after the verse of “I Thought About You” for example, turning it into an interesting twist.

José didn’t tell his bandmates on the record what the recording session was all about. “I used to work with Junior Mance, the great jazz and blues pianist. He told me about a club in New York called Bradley’s that was big in the 80s and it’s closed now. It was three blocks north of Washington Square Park. And Bradley’s was the place where everybody would go and hang. And at 2 in the morning they’d close the door, take out all the people, pull down the gate and then they would play all night long until 7 or 8 in the morning and I thought wow that kind of atmosphere which doesn’t exist in New York anymore. That’s what I wanted to feel like….I wanted that complete freedom from the band. Because when you have someone like Jason Moran on piano, I don’t think of him as a pianist. I think of him as a great composer… He can do anything. He really shaped the flow. He was my first and only choice for the album on piano because he understands the history of Jazz but he’s also very comfortable with playing with that history and making it contemporary.”

“A song like “Strange Fruit” unfortunately still very much has a role and a place in protest in Jazz in particular and to me doing a tribute to Billie Holiday without “Strange Fruit” is really robbing her of a crucial moment of her career…It’s really interesting to look at her life now from 2015 and say she was really a feminist and she was really open in her gender politics. She was bisexual and she was very open with the world in a way that we kind of take for granted now”. In fact, his version on the album is a very haunting affair with his moaning chords and then looping it to inlcude his handclaps to his strong performance in this sinister story.

The album also includes some of the signature Billie Holiday songs like “Good Morning Heartache” or “God Bless The Child”, the latter of which he was singing on stage last night with the French pianist Thomas Enhco who delivered some lively and also introspective playing.

José is touring Europe in May so check our Events section here as well.





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