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A singer at the busy crossroads of jazz and soul

José James developed ideas for several songs on his new album, “No Beginning No End,” in conversation with Leon Ware, who worked with Marvin Gaye.

Janette Beckman

José James developed ideas for several songs on his new album, “No Beginning No End,” in conversation with Leon Ware, who worked with Marvin Gaye.

The singer José James grew up in Minneapolis and studied jazz in New York, but he’s made his career mostly out of the American mainstream eye: recording for overseas and indie labels, living a few years in London, working with recherché producers like Gilles Peterson and Flying Lotus.

His recordings, spanning jazz and soul on a spectrum that stretches from Nat King Cole to J. Dilla, have earned him a cadre of committed fans on both sides of the Atlantic but no breakout commercial success — not least because his work has not fit neatly into any of the genre designations that regiment the US music industry.

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Now, however, a new synthesis of jazz and soul, driven by musicians shaped by hip-hop and myriad other influences, is under way, and James, who is 35 and now lives in Brooklyn, finds himself in the center of it.

Out this week, his fourth album, “No Beginning No End,” marks his return to home turf with panache. Signed to the hallowed Blue Note label, he’s appeared on the Conan O’Brien and David Letterman shows, and launched an album-release tour that comes to Scullers on Saturday.

The record itself is a powerhouse production, featuring ace jazz players of the moment like pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Chris Dave, alongside veteran bassist Pino Palladino, whose credits run from the Who to Adele. James developed ideas for several songs in conversation with Leon Ware, who worked with Marvin Gaye.

Two guest vocalists further stretch an already expansive field: singer-songwriter Emily King, who duets with James in a sweet, earnest pairing that evokes Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack; and Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra, who joins James on a taut, club-ready track built around a Gnawa rhythm and Afrobeat horns.

James navigates this profusion of sounds and ideas with the deftness and composure of one at peace with his eclecticism. His songs are smooth and spacious, the lyrics contemplative and romantic, delivered in a conversational, unhurried baritone. It makes for an album that’s a sleek hybrid, inevitably full of cascading references — Andy Bey here, D’Angelo there — but with its own secure identity.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” James says. He honed his approach with a pair of records, “The Dreamer” in 2008 and “Blackmagic” in 2010, that earned notice for their blend of jazz, R&B, and electronica. But he was taking on traditional jazz projects as well. He worked with respected elders Chico Hamilton and Junior Mance, and in 2010 recorded an album of standards, “For All We Know,” with Belgian pianist Jef Neve.

That year, he got the call for a particularly prestigious project — joining in a re-creation of a classic, the self-titled duo album of John Coltrane and singer Johnny Hartman, led by pianist McCoy Tyner, who played on the original 1963 date.

“To be able to stand onstage next to McCoy, to feel that presence, is something that will never be taken away from me,” James says. “People like that, they just inhabit the music — it’s really Zen.”

“But on a related note, working with him, with Chico Hamilton or Junior Mance, it showed me that jazz as we know it is really that generation’s language. It’s almost like trying to speak in an accent and dialect that’s older. That, more than anything, made me want to make my own stuff.”

If there’s a reference period that now inspires James more than any other, it’s no longer the time of standards and the Great American Songbook, but instead the early 1970s, not just for the exceptional profusion of music that it produced but for the sense of exploration and freedom to cross borders.

“That was a really exciting time for music in America,” James says. “You could hear Roberta Flack singing Leonard Cohen, and Laura Nyro singing black music. And it was all authentic, not forced.”

James says his all-time favorite album is Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” an idiosyncratic masterpiece that was not fully appreciated in its time, and which Ware produced. Meeting Ware, he says, was an inspiration on multiple levels.

“He’s a master to me. He’s done it all. He and Marvin came from that jazz and church background. And coming from Motown, they had a whole roomful of musicians on call.” For his new record James emulated that model, with a larger group of musicians and more sophisticated production than had occurred on his previous projects.

Like Glasper’s “Black Radio,” last year, also on Blue Note, “No Beginning No End” documents an emerging crossover scene whose aesthetic has yet to receive a name, but whose presence is palpable — through the involvement of influential figures like Yasiin Bey and Questlove of the Roots, on the pages of blogs like The Revivalist, and in the young, hip, mixed crowds turning up for shows, in lieu of the more staid, stereotypical “jazz audience.”

“There’s definitely a movement afoot of these cats,” says Don Was, the veteran musician turned Blue Note label president, who signed James. “It’s very much in the jazz tradition of having roots that run very deep, but being of the moment and aiming to the future. If you go to the underlying aesthetic it’s not that different from what Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter] were doing in the 1960s and 1970s.”

James, too, believes that jazz and soul have come into a creative, progressive moment. But his immediate reward is to be able, finally, to present his work to the audience that matters to him the most.

“I’ve played in Italy since 2007, but I’ve never played Philly,” he says. “I’ve never played Atlanta. That was a thorn in my side with living abroad. I’m American. I want to work for my crowd and my generation. I’m going to be touring like crazy this year and the next.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.
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