Jose James – Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday (2015)

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I approached Jose James’ latest album with more than a little trepidation — but not because James produces suspect work. His 2014 release While You were Sleeping, in fact, made my Top 10 best of list with its combination effective production, and stellar vocals and writing and morphing of jazz and R&B.

It’s just that I initially thought I’d be disappointed by a covers album from Jose James, when his original songs are so good. Fear not. James brings the same deft combination of soul and jazz to Yesterday I Had the Blues, a collection of Billie Holiday classics, effectively using his voice and arrangements to make the songs sound new again. This is a stellar, if somber, album. Yesterday I had the blues, indeed.

Another essential element of Yesterday I Had the Blues is producer Don Was. An expert in many settings, Was keeps a tight rein of the production — going for subtle touches and the interweaving of James’ voice with a small but effective band. Pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland prove to be a perfect complement to James’ effective vocal presence, soaring in understated elegance, inspired by the arrangements and Jose James’ delivery.

Throughout, James is at the height of his powers, never overreaching. His phrasing and tone are expertly crafted for the songs, almost making you forget that these gems were crafted for a female voice. Listen as “Good Morning Heartache” and “God Bless the Child” both reach new heights under his tutelage. Meanwhile, Moran’s piano works well in its interplay with the stick work of Harland. These little touches elevate an album from good to great.

“Body and Soul” continues the mood, while letting Jose James explore his upper register. It’s different than the album opener yet just as effective. The perhaps-surprising inclusion of “Lover Man” is just as effective as the previous tracks. James’ telling of this tale, powered along by his impassioned delivery and hint of desperation, works from the male perspective, too. The tension is only enhanced by the rhythm section of Patitucci and Harland.

By the time you reach the closing track “Strange Fruit,” the sonic tension found on Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday is at a fevered pitch. Yet, Jose James doesn’t provide the release. “Strange Fruit,” a tale of dissolution, sadness and chaos, leaves the listener torn up and desperate. James’ beautiful reading of the song is a perfect encapsulation of the album — and an effective metaphor for what’s happening now in America. The song, which consists solely of James’ voice and handclaps begs for a denouement that this album does not have, and does not need.

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