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From Rat Pack to J Dilla: José James Serves a Holiday Vibe

Janette Beckman

For anyone familiar with José James career, it's now routine to expect the unexpected — even when it comes to his taste of holiday music.

Merry Christmas from José James doesn’t discriminate between genres or generations, despite the recording having an overall vintage feel. At one turn, you’ll hear his arrangements of classics — almost old-time melodies—popularized by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. But then he zags toward a modern Xmas affair with John Coltrane and Donny Hathaway, and takes it even further with a subtle nod to broken-beat hip-hop virtuoso J Dilla.

James wanted to put his own stamp on the tradition. For two songs, he joined his wife and creative partner, the singer and producer Taali, to contribute new originals in a holiday vein, including one with Stevie Wonder in mind.

The only constant in this varied holiday session is its old-school approach: recorded to tape with as few takes as possible, and christened on the same Capitol Studio microphones that Sinatra and Cole once used on their own Christmas recordings many decades ago. To pull off these feats, James needed an audacious and dynamic band to fulfill his vision: Aaron Parks (piano), Ben Williams (bass) and Jharis Yokely (drums), with Marcus Strickland (tenor) joining as a guest.

José James - Christmas in New York (Official Music Video)

On this episode of The Checkout, James also shares stories about growing up with too many White Christmases to count in Minneapolis, and gives some life lessons bestowed to him by his grandmother, who died only a few weeks ago.

Merry Christmas from José James is out now on Rainbow Blonde records. And there's a special copy waiting for you during our Winter Fund Drive, with any $100 contribution to WBGO.

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For more than 15 years, Simon Rentner has worked as a host, producer, broadcaster, web journalist, and music presenter in New York City. His career gives him the opportunity to cover a wide spectrum of topics including, history, culture, and, most importantly, his true passion of music from faraway places such as Europe, South America, and Africa.