José James opened his show at Scullers on Saturday with a little bit of playful bragging. He had earned the right. His new album, “No Beginning No End,” his fourth but the first to catch fire with a wider audience, is
No. 3 on the iTunes R&B-soul chart, though he didn’t think of it strictly as either.
Then he considered the distinction.
“There’s no genre in between R&B and jazz,” he said, adding that R&B sells better than jazz, anyway.
“I got kids to feed!” he joked.
It was a telling admission for an evening that indeed flirted with the fringes of R&B, jazz, soul, funk, and hip-hop. James, who’s based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a nimble vocalist who easily eludes category. He’s a soul singer who happens to be working in the realm of jazz, backed by a crack four-piece that included pianist Kris Bowers, trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, drummer Richard Spaven, and Solomon Dorsey on bass and backing vocals.
The collision of those opposite ends of the spectrum — James’s laidback groove paired with his bandmates’ jazz virtuosity — is what made the sold-out Scullers show so compelling. James’s touch was so light at times, particularly on “Trouble” and “Heaven on the Ground,” that you found yourself leaning in, wanting to get closer to a man intentionally keeping you at bay. He was seductive like that. When he asked in the softest of voices, “Do you feel what I feel?,” an excited female fan answered for all of us: “Yes, yes!”
James knows the power of understatement. That’s why when he picked up an acoustic guitar for “Come to My Door,” a treacly ballad, it felt amiss, like he was shoehorning his style into someone else’s. The song was far too obvious for James’s sly approach and best left to Jack Johnson or India.Arie.
As if to prove his diverse influences, he peppered the set with an Al Green cover (“Simply Beautiful”) and tacked on a snippet of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” at the end of his own “It’s All Over Your Body.”
“Park Bench People,” originally done by Freestyle Fellowship, was James at his peak. He turned a fluid hip-hop flow into stuttering scat singing, blurring the lines between both genres until the song became something else entirely: his own.