Jose James does a deep dive into the songs of Erykah Badu
Since the release of his debut album The Dreamer in 2008, Jose James went on to record 11 more albums as a leader and establish himself as one of the greatest male jazz singers of his generation. Included in his catalog are three tribute albums – to Billie Holiday (Yesterday I Had the Blues in 2015), Bill Withers (Lean On Me in 2018) and now Erykah Badu (On and On released in January of this year). However, the vocalist has developed his own unique and innovative style that reflects hip hop and soul influences, while still having both feet firmly in the jazz genre. Although he released five albums on Blue Note Records, he’s been releasing his most recent material on Rainbow Blonde Records, a label he and his wife, the singer-songwriter Taali, started in 2018 initially to reissue his debut album, but has gone on to release 15 albums, including Ben Williams’ I Am a Man.
During the recent Blue Note at Sea cruise, James sat down with me to talk about his new album, Erykah Badu’s legacy, doing tributes, as well as about his upcoming book that’s one part memoir, one part interviews and one part jazz vocal education. Coming into the interview, he had just performed a set of songs from On and On with his working band of BigYuki (keyboards), Williams (bass) and Jharis Yokley (drums) and he had signed CDs and posed for pictures with fans for almost an hour, displaying a warmth and generosity that nicely reflect his musicality on the bandstand.
Listen to our conversation, above.
Lee Mergner: When I talk about the various tributes you have done, it makes you sound like a musical jukebox, but you’re far from that. That said, I didn’t know about your tribute to Alice and John Coltrane. Had you recorded that?
Jose James: We did a special live recording at Ancienne Belgique, which is one of my favorite venues in Brussels. I had mentioned in an article while I was in Brussels doing press that I really love John and Alice Coltrane and that I would love someday to do a project. The artistic director, Kurt Overbergh, read that and he reached out to me and invited me to do it there. So I flew out the band and we did rehearsals. We did one night that we recorded, but I've never released it.
What tunes did you do?
What did we do? Everything. “Psalm” from A Love Supreme. “Resolution,” “Naima,” “Equinox,” "Satellite," and songs from Living Space. I'm a deep John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane fan. I think we did like 25 songs. It was like a three-hour concert. It was great. In the future there will be a John and Alice Coltrane album. Lakecia Benjamin obviously just put her [Alice Coltrane] right with her Pursuance album. I’m going to let that have the space that it deserves. Eventually, I'll do my version, because actually I got my start writing lyrics to Coltrane solos. When I was 17, that was my entry into jazz.
We're going to skip the album celebrating Billie Holiday, other than to say that is was really special. The Bill Withers album just kind of exploded, certainly as a live thing. I saw multiple times the audience go nuts when you played that material. I think I've asked you this before, but did any audience not get it?
I think the generation who grew up with his music kind of came hoping it would be good, but had their arms folded a little bit. As soon as they heard the beginning of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” they were like, “Okay, his music is in good hands.”
It definitely helped that Bill signed off on the project.
Yes, it was amazing meeting him. He was so funny. That's the thing about him. He had that dry humor. But yes, the people loved it. It was amazing going to Korea or going to Japan and hearing people sing “Lovely Day” or “Just the Two of Us.” His songs are so universal.
Let’s talk about Erykah Badu. Do you remember when you first heard her music?
I do and it hit like a thunderbolt, you know? It was so fresh and so cool and so unique because we had a lot of hip hop back then, a lot of produced stuff, and then Erykah came along. You could hear there was a band involved, you could hear she was creating. It was very singular. I think she stands apart from her peers, even people like D'Angelo or Lauryn Hill, because she really has a song craft that's hits a little differently.
To me, she’s like the Joni Mitchell of my generation, where she's in it, but she stands a bit apart in a certain way. She's able to perceive it in the way that Joni did with Woodstock and all these kind of ways, from a distance. I think every great writer needs that distance.
Joni also evolved. That's another thing that Erykah did. She didn't just do one thing. She grew and did different things. I remember asking you about Bill Withers and what's makes him special or unique in terms of what was his thing as a songwriter? You said, “Well, he's from the country and all that imagery in the songs comes from that.” Is there anything with Erykah’s songs that you go, “That’s her”?
I think it’s her courage, her vulnerability. She's really a blend of so many things. She's got that Southern thing and she also transplanted to Brooklyn. She was there when Spike Lee and all these incredible creative people were there. Brooklyn was such a thing then. Brooklyn is always great, but I think there was more time for things to develop back when she did it. That’s what I wanted to do with this album and let people discover it the way that we used to, via word of mouth and actually holding onto it because it has some value. Erykah was part of the spoken word movement too, so her lyricism is a little bit different from a lot of rappers. She’s kind of the bridge to me between hip hop and rap and the jazz and the singer songwriter world. I can't think of anybody else who really occupies that space.
Well, it's funny when people say singer-songwriter that they think right away of the white men or women, like Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, et al. But the ones you have featured are all great singers and songwriters, absolutely. But no one would call them that. Same with Stevie Wonder or Prince. I guess it’s just the way the singer-songwriter genre was named for that generation, but at the essence, Billie Holiday is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time.
Talk about the process of doing someone else's music, because you can’t go too far away, but you also don’t want to sound like a karaoke band.
It’s tough. I learned a lot from Andy Gale, who is my acting coach. Shout out to Andy Gale. He's in New York City. He's a legend. He's the man behind many great actors’ careers. I worked with him for a while to get deeper into the lyrics of Bill Withers. He had me do a thing, which is really cool, where you take the words of the song, put them on a text, and just work on that without any music. That is deep, and I'm still processing that. You take the lyrics of any standard or any song, and just write them down and space them out the same way that you would do a monologue, right? And then you run the lines. And you get a different phrasing. You get a different sort of perspective of what the words mean to you. Then when you put it back together with the melody, all of a sudden you have your own sort of actor’s entree into the song. That really helped.
It's Method Singing, like Method Acting.
Method Singing. I did the same thing with the Badu material because I think it could have gone very wrong as a man singing from the perspective of a Black woman who writes very personal stuff. I wanted to be very careful with her words and her story and make sure that the message that I was carrying was appropriate and also showcased her as a songwriter. Thankfully, her catalog is so profoundly deep. Way deeper than I thought it was. I thought I knew it all, but there was always more.
It’s been kind of a shame that we haven't gotten new records from her, but as you say, there's still a large body of work there already. And like you, she has one foot in acting. Let’s talk about the group on the record, which is a band that you're working with for live shows. Let’s start with the young saxophonist Ebban Dorsey. How did you come across her?
On Instagram. I saw a video of her and her brother sitting in at King's Theater in Brooklyn with Kamasi Washington. Her sound just reached out and grabbed me. I literally without thinking followed my instinct and DM-ed her and I said “Hey, I just saw you playing with Kamasi. I'm playing at the Blue Note next week. Would y'all wanna come up and just sit in?” And she was like, “Oh yeah, let's go.” And long story short, she came to The Blue Note with her mom and her brother. They're a very close family. Beautiful. She turned 18 on stage with us. I didn't even know it was her birthday. It feels like it was like out of a movie, playing on “Park Bench People” and “Red Clay.” She just tore the house down and nobody could believe she was 17. Because I was going to go start recording the album in Woodstock, I said, “Hey, can I get you on the album?” That's how the relationship started. I don't know where they come from, man. I was not that together at 18.
Who is? I just did an interview with Julian Lage and he said, “Well, I did this when I was eight and this when I was ten and this when I was twelve.” And he was teaching at 17. Thankfully, he's such a beautiful and sweet guy. But still, most of us all of us were like, “Really?” Sometimes the gift is there and they were raised in a very supportive environment, with a lot of music education and community programs.
A shout out to Jazz House Kids, the program run by Melissa Walker and Christian McBride. She graduated from that program, and her brother as well.
Are you doing some stuff with them? You would be great doing that work.
You know what? I am entering this mentorship stage of my career and I'm really embracing that. I invited some of the Jazz House players just now on the Blue Note at Sea cruise on my stage, which was awesome. I'm really making a concerted effort to teach more, to reach out, to be a mentor, to answer the tough questions that we all need to answer in the business.
Let’s talk about some of the other players in your band. The bassist Ben Williams has played with you for a good bit of time.
Yeah, I'm grateful. He's so good.
What do you like about his playing?
Ben is one of the few bassists, and I would include Christian McBride, who really love all genres and they're really good at it too. Like when Ben plays funk, he plays funk. And when he plays jazz, he plays real jazz. So I knew he was the right person because we did the Bill Withers project too. But Erykah Badu’s thing is a strange mix of ‘70s funk and jazz, and deep cut things. Samples that got turned into songs with a beat on top of it, and then some deep sort of singer songwriter, like with a song called “Out My Mind Just in Time.” You can't really describe what it is. I needed somebody who could really anchor not only the feel of it, but just the harmonic movement in a way that didn't lose any of it—didn't lose the jazz and didn't lose the hip hop. That was my goal as a producer in this record to balance both at the same time. Could I do it? Could I make a record that sounded like the band was like Alice Coltrane, but produced by J Dilla? That was the idea.
I would have to guess that this music was probably hitting him in those formative years when you’re young and the music has a deep impact.
Exactly. He probably learned a lot of those bass lines from all that stuff.
On keyboards you have Big Yuki, another guy who plays with a lot of people, including Antonio Sanchez’s Bad Hombre project. How did you hook up with him initially?
Yuki and I had been kind of like circling each other. I'd see him sitting in with Glasper and we kind of met, but we never really linked. Then during the pandemic, I reached out to him and I said, “I'm going to do this thing in Woodstock and let's just go up there and go crazy.” We rented out Levon Helm's studio. We did a live album with Jharis, Ben, Yuki, Marcus Machado and Taali. It was just so much fun and so unique. He’s such a unique player and he's one of the few players who plays the piano and plays the synth as an instrument. To me that's rare to really embody both.
Oddly, there aren’t that many keyboardists who have evolved a distinctive sound like Zawinul or Chick back in the day. Yuki, along with Jason Lindner, Adam Benjamin and a few others have done it.
With Yuki, the amount of equipment he brings to a recording session is deeply ridiculous. I love it.
Talk about your drummer Jharis Yokley.
Actually, Instagram also hooked me up. I had a gig and I reached out to Eric Harland and I said, “Hey Eric, would you be free for this?” And he wasn't.
He's never free. He’s working with everybody.
Yea, he's always busy, which is fair. And I said, “Hey man, if you can't do it, I'm looking for somebody new, somebody fresh…is there anybody that you know?” And he said, “I haven't met this guy, but I heard he's amazing.” And he sent me his profile. Within 15 seconds, I was hooked. This guy, to me, is like if Tony Williams grew up listening to J Dilla. He's just a monster. It makes sense because he went to Berklee and studied under Terri Lyne Carrington. So his fundamentals are through the roof. He's also of that generation where he loved classic jazz as much as he loved the hip hop beats of production. He puts it all together in this beautiful way.
What about the other saxophone player?
There's another sax player named Diana Dzhabbar, who was my student when I was teaching at the conservatory in Amsterdam. She's Afro-Ukrainian and she's incredible. I think she's 23. When I first heard her, I thought it was tenor and then I realized she was playing alto. She sounded like Benny Carter with a deeper sound. Just rich. She sounded like she time traveled from the ‘50s. I was like, “Who are you?” I started working with her. She plays flute too on the album. She's a great singer and she also makes beats and raps. I had to bring her on just because her sound is so unique. What I'm hearing now lately is that younger players are developing an older sound, like a really personal, rich and unique thing. I think it wasn't quite there in the ‘90s and early ‘2000s. We were going for a cleaner and more modern thing. Now it sounds like they're going for this darker, older thing, which I personally love.
This album was released on your Rainbow Blonde label that also released the Christmas album [Merry Christmas from Jose James] and reissues of some of your earlier recordings. And of course, Ben's I Am a Man album. What led you to go, “Okay, I'll release my own albums, but I’ll also put out other people's records”? Because then it turns into a job.
It is. It's a full-time job, which I love. It's really Taali. She has an extensive background working in the music business. She worked at Blue Note Records. She helped get No Beginning, No End signed. She was Bruce Lundvall's executive assistant for five years. So she knows the ins and outs of the business, from top to bottom.
That's a heck of a mentor. Did Bruce sign you or did Don Was sign you to Blue Note Records?
Don signed me, but based on Taali’s recommendation, for which I'll be eternally grateful. She was saying, “I think you should start a label.” And we did. Five years ago, we put out The Dreamer, on the 10th anniversary of its release as my first album. I was thinking of it at the time, like, “Okay, convenient. This is going to be a little label.” I was still in the middle of my Blue Note deal and doing the touring with Bill Withers and I wasn't really thinking about it. Taali said, “I think we could really make this a global brand. I think we should go for it.” She's the president of the label. I'm so blessed to have her in my life. She really spearheaded the whole thing and came up with the whole concept of what we call an inside out label where everyone is celebrated, from the graphic designer to the business management to the photographer. It helps to have Janette Beckman, who's a legend, taking photos for us.
She really has built it up from this small boutique grassroots thing to now we're on our 15th release in five years. Right now we’re celebrating our five year anniversary. We got a lot coming out. We're doing Jharis’ debut album and Taali has her own album coming out during International Women's Month in March too.
How has doing these tributes to great singer-songwriters shaped your own songwriting?
It really has. It’s fascinating to get inside someone else's mind and say, “Oh, this is how it works from the inside out.” That's completely different now when you're a fan. Even a song like “Lovely Day” or “On and On,” you think you know it. Then when you really get into the meaning, you say, “Oh, wow, I didn't even know these connections.” That inspires me to go deeper into my own stuff. I think of it as kind of giving myself a break as a creator, so I'm not burning out on it. Let me uplift the people around me. I really take my responsibility as a jazz singer pretty seriously. I think that we do have a responsibility to interpret great work. Whether that be from the past or the present, even though some of these songs are 25 years old now. 25 years ago, Baduism dropped and changed the world. It empowers me to say, “Okay, I don't know as a writer what impact my song might have.” There are kids now coming up to me and saying, “I learned how to play drums to ‘Trouble.’” It makes me feel really cool that I'm making an impact. But when I was writing it, I had no idea. It's the highest tribute, really.
During this cruise you hosted a session called Jose’s Jazz Jam, but it was actually a presentation about the history of jazz vocals, in which you talked about several of the great singers, played a cut and then deconstructed what their real gift was. I liked that you made it personal but not about yourself. How did you come up with that concept?
I'm a deep scholar of jazz. I always try to learn more about it. It's fascinating to me. It's never ending. You can never know all of it. I'm writing a book right now about jazz singing. It's going to be in three parts. One is my musical autobiography, one is my concept for newcomers and for professionals. The final one is interviews with some of the greats. Andy Bey, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling… Hopefully I’ll get Dee Dee Bridgewater.
I want to let people understand not only what to listen for as an outsider, but how we listen to it as singers, what we're listening for as singers. That's what I wanted to put together. I thought that'd be a little more interesting because a lot of these songs we listen to a lot. They’re standards and classics. You can hear why Frank Sinatra was phrasing the way he did on “Come Fly with Me,” which at the time was sort of a novelty tune on a novelty album. With his phrasing, he rarely sings the right rhythm as written. I think his genius for jazz is his rhythmic improvisation, which we don't really talk about. We talk about his melodic and harmonic approach, but his rhythmic improvisation on that track is stunning.
Not that the world needs another podcast, but I thought this would make a great one. I could imagine you talking about and playing music by a jazz vocal great in each episode, like Billie Holiday, Ella, Joe Williams, Johnny Hartman, Sarah Vaughan.
I really love jazz singing because it celebrates the individual. Back then you could not have a career unless you sounded like yourself. If you sounded like somebody else: No thank you. There were so many people trying to sound like Billie Holiday, but there was only one.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.