Oct 17, 2023 3:36 PM
Carla Bley, Provocative Composer-Pianist, Dies at Age 87
With her iconic bangs, sharp features and free-flowing sense of the absurd, Carla Bley, who died Oct. 17 of brain…
It’s early December and José James is in the Yuletide spirit. He’s on stage in front of packed audience at Dakota, the premier jazz venue in his hometown of Minneapolis.
Accompanied by a splendid rhythm section of pianist Julius Rodriguez, bassist Dan Winshall and drummer Jharis Yokley, James treats the audience with selections from his 2021 album Merry Christmas From José James (Rainbow Blonde).
James intersperses sanguine Holiday classics such as Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and his own wonderful composition, “Christmas In New York,” cowritten by his wife, Talia Billig, with anecdotes about growing up in the Twin Cities.
He’s always exuded an assured, inviting stage presence that complements his whiskey-sour baritone. But at the Dakota, James seems even more relaxed. He jokes with the audience about his decision not to sing corny Christmas favorites such as “Frosty The Snowman” and “Jingle Bell Rock” in favor of more sensual material made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole. He recalls recording at Capitol Records studios and being slightly intimidated by singing into Sinatra’s famous “Telly” Neumann U47 microphone. He namechecks Twin Cities jazz luminaries Bruce A. Henry and the late Debbie Duncan as lodestars during his formative years. And he showers appreciation to his grandmother, who’s in the audience.
The day after, just hours before James returns to the Dakota for his second night, he talks about the significance of having his grandmother at the concert. “We had breakfast this morning and she said, ‘When I looked around the room and saw all your fans and how people were touched by your voice, it made me so proud,’” says James as he shares some of her homemade cookies and caramel candies. “That’s the highest compliment I could ever get, because she really sees me not just as an artist, but as that little boy, who went through all these trials and adversity to use my gift to help people and to bring joy to the world.”
Ever since James emerged on the jazz scene with his 2007 debut album, The Dreamer, originally released on Brownswood Recordings, Giles Peterson’s influential imprint, he’s been a globetrotter, insistently living in various European cities and around New York. His ingenious manner of merging straightahead jazz with rap music and future soul elevated his status on the cosmopolitan music as “the jazz singer for the hip-hop generation.”
So, catching James in his hometown is an illuminating treat. He notes how uncharacteristically Minnesotan it was for him at Dakota to boast about Minneapolis’ rich music legacy that extends far beyond Prince, the city’s most famous star.
“We don’t really claim our heroes or brag about anything, even with our sports teams like the Vikings or the Twins,” he says. “The vibe here is not really cutting people down; it’s about not making a big deal about things.”
James recalls his first performance as a singer, at age 17, in South Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park neighborhood. It’s the vicinity where George Floyd was killed in 2020 by a police officer. “Cup Foods was my grocery store,” says James, citing the Chicago Avenue establishment where officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd on the ground. “That was the local grocery store by my mom’s house.”
James’ mom, Shawn Fitzgerald, is a writer; his father, José James, is a saxophonist, who made a name for himself on the Twin Cities scene in the 1980s with the bands Willie and the Bees and Ipso Facto. James Jr. recalls his father not being supportive of him delving into the music scene, possibly because he knew firsthand about that journey’s difficulties.
James said that while he was growing up, his father wasn’t much of a presence. But he believes that his father is proud of his accomplishments, even when they don’t explicitly talk about them. “When I got signed on Blue Note Records, we never sat down and talked about the records that I was making,” James says. “The thing about my dad’s generation is that they don’t always tell you how they feel. They’ll tell other people, who then tell you about how proud they are.”
Indeed, singer Bruce A. Henry, who frequently performed with James’ father, recalls how much he boasted on his son’s singing prowess. “José, the elder, was always a pretty modest gentleman,” Henry says. “But he always kept telling me, ‘You gotta hear my son.’”
“José has such big ears,” Henry remembers. “When he was coming up in the Twin Cities, he performed with a sense of cultural history as a Black person. He showed a growing understanding about the music’s past while keeping a foot in the hip-hop scene.”
James found additional support from other musicians such as singers Debbie Duncan, Dennis Spears and Mychael Rambo; multi-reedist and sculptor Douglas Ewart; saxophonist Donald Washington; and poet and community organizer Louis Alemayehu.
James cites Alemayehu as an influential mentor who introduced him to jazz’s radical edges with the music of fire-spitters such as Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Alemayehu also co-led a Minneapolis-based ensemble, Ancestor Energy, with pianist Carei Thomas. The band performed its own brand of spiritual jazz. As a teen, James joined Ancestor Energy. One of his singing highlights with the ensemble was their rendition of Coltrane’s “Equinox.”
Alemayehu recalls meeting James when he was a teen, working at Powderhorn-based May Day Cafe. James was serving one of Alemayehu’s friends, who, in turn, encouraged the poet to meet the budding jazz singer. After Alemayehu and James established a friendship, the former remembers playing jazz records for James, who was soaking up knowledge.
“One of the songs that James sang for me early on was Thelonious Monk’s ‘In Walked Bud,’” Alemayehu remembers. “He could scat and improvise over that song. I was just amazed because he could do that on the spot. He was already singing beyond his years. As an improviser, he was strong like Betty Carter.”
Alemayehu imparted James with some of the phrasing techniques he adopted from Joe Williams and Carmen McRae, and the art of exhuming the storytelling substance of lyrics. “I taught him that songs need a real flow in how they are recited, sung or chanted,” Alemayehu says. “I also taught him that our music was a lot more than entertainment, and that it was spiritual and political. And if we didn’t have our music, which came with us through the Atlantic slave trade, we would not have survived this hell on earth in the U.S.”
Running the Baduizm Down
Beginning in mid-January 2023, James was off to perform on the Blue Note at Sea cruise, kicking off a promotional European tour for his newest album, On & On (Rainbow Blonde), a recording where James interprets seven Erykah Badu compositions.
On & On marks James’ third songbook on which he concentrates on the music of a sole artist. Blue Note Records released the first one, Yesterday I Had The Blues, in 2015, on which he sang music associated with Billie Holiday; three years later, the label issued Lean On Me, which focused on Bill Withers’ music.
James explains that with the Billie Holiday tribute, there was less pressure because so many others have recorded Lady Day tributes with varying degrees of success. “Nobody is really going to give you any flack unless you mishandle ‘Strange Fruit.’ I think that’s the one place where it could go wrong,” James says.
He says that it was more pressure to get the Withers tribute right because the honoree was still living when it was released. “Our parents grew up with his music. Some of them saw him perform those songs during his heyday,” James says. “It was very much paying tribute to someone who was with us and was very vibrant.”
Narrowing the generation gap even more, Badu is only seven years older than 45-year-old James. She continues to be a guiding light on the soul and hip-hop scenes. “She’s very relevant, so there was a real element of danger,” James explains. “And her fan base can be very protective.”
James used Herbie Hancock’s 2007 album River: The Joni Letters for inspiration. “I walked away from that record with a new appreciation for Joni Mitchell’s music,” James recalls. “I already loved her music, but I was like, ‘Oh, I never thought of it from this angle’. So, for me, that was sort of the first concept for On & On.”
More evident is James channeling the spirit of Alice Coltrane and coalescing it with the rugged crate-digger sensibilities and beats of hip-hop producers Madlib and Dilla. On the album cover, James pays homage to Coltrane’s 1971 Impulse! release Journey In Satchidananda.
When delving into Badu’s canon, James noticed a heightened sense of spirituality and Afrofuturism inside the music akin to Alice Coltrane’s music. “The more I thought about that connection, the more it made sense,” James explains. “Alice became my jazz reference — the lens through which I saw the whole concept.”
He also came to grips with which songs he could truthfully render. “She has a deep catalog with a lot of untouchable stuff,” James explains before referencing “On And On, Part 2.” “On that song, she sings about getting her period. That song contains things that come from a Black woman’s perspective, which is sacred. That is her story. That is not my story to tell.”
Even so, there were other Badu ballads like the bruising “Green Eyes” and the episodic “Out Of Mind, Just In Time,” which, in order to render them properly, required James to mine deeper levels of vulnerability within himself.
“On ‘Out Of My Mind, Just In Time,’ [Badu] transitions the lyrics from being complex to really simple, then the song unfolds with a list of grievousness that almost made me uncomfortable to sing, because you really have to go there and believe it,” he says. “I had to get real with myself.”
James sought guidance from his wife. She told him that he would have to get super vulnerable to sing that song because it’s written from a woman’s perspective. “She was right. I had to really sit with those lyrics and think about how I expressed them in my life with people whom I loved,” James says. “And I’m not going to lie: It was not easy. That’s not the first thing that comes to me as a conditioned man in this society, to get that vulnerable.”
In October 2022, James performed his makeovers of Badu’s music in Brooklyn at the BRIC JazzFest. He began the set ceremoniously, playing a Tibetan singing bowl as if he was a shaman summoning ancient spirits. Soon after, the band, consisting of Rodriguez, Yokley, bassist Ben Williams and saxophonists Ebban Dorsey and Morgan Guerin commenced in a soul-stirring opening that evoked John Coltrane’s “Crescent.” The sonic rumbling clouds soon gave way to James launching into “On And On,” Badu’s game-changing debut single from her 1997 LP Baduizm.
“The thing I love about Baduizm was that the jazz was just a part of the fabric; it wasn’t like an announcement,” James says. “She wasn’t trying to make a big deal of it. When you look back now, it’s a very jazzy record, but it didn’t really feel like that at the time. For me, it was just the new soul joint.”
Embracing Black Femininity
For the On & On recordings sessions in the summer of 2022, James recruited Williams, Yokley and Dorsey. But instead of Rodriguez, the album features BIGYUKI on keyboards as well as Diana Dzhabbar on flute and alto saxophone. While embracing so much Black feminine beauty, strength and vulnerability while making On & On, James says it was paramount to showcase Dorsey and Dzhabbar — two incredible young Black female instrumentalists.
“Erykah Badu’s music is a very sacred realm where a Black woman is speaking her truth about her community, about her family, about her love life, about her world,” James says. “And I love how she consistently uses her platform as a launching pad for younger artists. So, it was important for me to feature young Black women on the record.”
James not only features Dorsey and Dzhabbar, he’s also serving as a mentor. He encountered Dorsey via Instagram when she was 17 years old. She and her saxophone-playing brother, Ephraim, were sitting in with Kamasi Washington. He was instantly captivated by her sound, which, he says, recalls Cannonball Adderley. Last year, he invited the Baltimore-based Dorsey to sit with him at New York’s Blue Note during his rendition of Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People.” She had just turned 18. A week later, she was in the studio with him for On & On.
“That was my first studio session,” Dorsey says. “It was amazing — just to play some of the music that I grew up listening to. I told him that one thing I realized was how peaceful it felt. I wasn’t nervous at all. I thought I would be. But being in that studio, which felt like a church, it was so calming, but fun.”
James met Dzhabbar, an Afro-Ukrainian student in Amsterdam, when he was teaching at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. He recalls her being one of the few Black students there, and possibly the only Black female playing saxophone. James says she unravels a classic jazz sound akin to Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges.
In addition to learning music, Dzhabbar says James is a great mentor in terms of imparting his strong work ethic. “He’s really a hard-working person,” she says. “He never stops. He’s always releasing new stuff; he’s always performing. From him, I learned that I really have to be organized if I want to be successful.”
With its undeniable feminine presence, On & On strikes a strong alliance with drummer, composer, producer and educator Terri Lyne Carrington’s efforts with Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Studies, as well as her recent New Standards album and complementary book New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers.
“I hope people understand that I’m trying to help develop new repertoire for the new frontier for jazz singers,” James says. “To call something as standard is a decision of what we deem important in society, whose voice should be heard in perpetuity.” DB
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