Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience: Jose James
IF YOU GO …
Who: Jose James
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience at the St. Regis
When: Saturday, June 22, 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, June 23, 5 & 7:30 p.m.
More info: jazzaspensnowmass.org
The songs of Bill Withers cast a spell.
Vocalist Jose James is learning just how deeply connected people feel to Withers’ timeless and bittersweet soul songs as he tours with his own tribute to Withers, which he’ll bring to the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience tonight and Sunday night.
The opening notes of “Just the Two of Us,” James said before a JAS Café show last year, always get a crowd going.
“When people hear the intro to that song, they freak out,” James said. “It’s beautiful. It feels like it’s bigger than me — like I’m a part of something bigger than myself.”
James is playing three shows this weekend — one billed as a “standards” set, the other two are Withers-focused and filled with James’ interpretations on his 2018 album “Lean on Me: Jose James Celebrates Bill Withers.”
Don Was, the legendary bass player and current president of Blue Note Records, produced the album. He introduced James to Bill Withers himself early on in the creative process. Withers, now 80, was familiar with James’ work and has supported the project.
“He respected where I was coming from,” James recalled. “So we just had a nice hang, talking about music and Donny Hathaway and R&B. It was more philosophical, more about the price you pay to be an artist in this society and the difficulties of being sensitive to your surroundings.”
James said his initial list of “must-do songs” by Withers was 60 titles long. Don Was coached him to cull it down to a more manageable number.
“Don said, ‘Don’t try to be an ethno-musicologist about it — just do whatever resonates with you and that you can make your own,’” James recalled. “That was helpful because it helped me separate Bill Withers the songwriter from Bill Withers the icon.”
Though his repertoire of Withers songs for the concerts is more expansive, James limited himself to 12 songs on the album including beloved compositions like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us” along with stirring takes on Withers songs like “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” and “Better Off Dead.”
James is among the most acclaimed vocalists working in contemporary jazz. Since his 2008 debut “Dreamer,” he’s helped redefine the sounds of jazz by bringing in elements of electronic music and hip-hop, while thoughtfully paying tribute to musical forbears like Billie Holiday.
On his most recent release of originals, 2017’s “Love in a Time of Madness,” James and his band experimented with the sounds of ’70s funk, soul and R&B. That dance-centric sound is subtly present in the stripped-down arrangements he’s chosen for the Withers project. Though he and his four-man band are aiming to primarily showcase the lyrics and vocals, James said, “we have a funk underbelly, with a jazz topcoat.” The band includes JAS Academy alum Ben Williams on bass.
Withers’ music and his overriding message of love, James noted, is much needed today as the country is roiled by cultural and political division. Withers, of course, was first releasing his iconic songs in the era of Nixon, Watergate and the Vietnam War.
At the outset of the Withers project, he performed the tribute at the Kennedy Center in Washington — with string arrangements by Jazz Aspen regular Christian McBride — where he said the healing and hope in these songs was freighted with new meaning.
“It really felt political performing in D.C. in this moment where everything is so unstable and it feels like President (Donald) Trump is declaring war on America,” he said. “It felt great to perform this music in that place and have it resonate with so many Americans who grew up on this music, both black and white.”