José James brings Bill Withers tribute to the JAS Cafe
IF YOU GO …
What: José James performing the songs of Bill Withers
Where: JAS Café at the Cooking School of Aspen
When: Friday, March 16 & Saturday, March 17, 7 & 9:15 p.m.
How much: $45 ($110 with dinner)
The songs of Bill Withers can cast a spell on an audience.
Vocalist Jose James is learning just how deeply connected people feel to Withers’ timeless and bittersweet soul songs as he perfects his own tribute to Withers, which he’ll bring to the JAS Cafe for four performances tonight and Saturday.
The opening notes of “Just the Two of Us,” James said, always get a crowd going.
“When people hear the intro to that song, they freak out,” James, 40, said last week in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “It’s beautiful. It feels like it’s bigger than me — like I’m a part of something bigger than myself.”
The Aspen shows will offer a preview of what’s to come on the album “Lean on Me: Jose James Celebrates Bill Withers,” due out in late September from Blue Note. James and his four-man band are coming to Aspen straight from their recording sessions at Capitol Records in L.A.
Don Was, the legendary bass player and current president of Blue Note Records, is producing the album. He introduced James to Bill Withers himself early on in the creative process. Withers, now 79, 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 is looking to limit the album to 12 songs including beloved compositions like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.” Before taking the material on the road this spring, James released a series of stirring live video recordings that showcase his take on Withers songs like “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” and “Better Off Dead.”
James, 40, 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, last year’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 in 2018 as the country are roiled by cultural and political divisions. Withers, of course, was first releasing his iconic songs in the era of Nixon, Watergate and the Vietnam War.
James and his band recently performed the Withers material 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 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.”
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Did you hear that? It’s the sound of music — and if the kickoff of the Snowmass Village Free Concert Series was any indication, Fanny Hill sure was alive with it Thursday night.