José James ‘Yesterday I Had the Blues. The Music of Billie Holiday’ (Blue Note) 4/5

josé-jamesThis April we celebrate what would have been the one hundredth anniversary of one of jazz music’s most unique and emotionally-charged voices of all time, namely that of Billie Holiday. Blue Note have seen fit to pay tribute to her music by entrusting José James with the responsibility of paying homage and this refined set is respectful of the jazz tradition while sticking to an acoustic trio format and a top notch one at that comprising Jason Moran on piano and fender, John Pattitucci on bass and Eric Harland on drums. This compares favourably with the earlier tribute from Dee Dee Bridgewater which was excellent in it’s own right.
Carefully selected, the nine songs covered on the album makes for a cohesive whole and James voice has a vulnerability to it that make him the ideal male vocalist to attempt Lady Day’s classic repertoire and yet he still manages to stamp his own individuality on each of the songs. There is for example an uptempo and somewhat lengthy trio intro to ‘What a little moonlight can do’ and when James finally enters he does so bringing a spontaneous feel to proceedings while the trio really cooks. An intimate rendition of ‘Tenderly’ at an achingly slow pace works a treat while on the relaxed and leisurely tempo ‘Good Morning Heartache’ the band swings gently. For a lovely bass line and blues-inflected piano, ‘Fine and Mellow could scarcely be bettered and James’ approach here recalls that of say Jimmy Rushing or Jimmy Witherspoon in their prime with a down home blues approach, but in an altogether more sedate fashion. A blues shouter he certainly is not. Jason Moran has an opportunity to shine with an extended solo on ‘I thought about you’ and indeed the rest of the rhythm section is out here, but overall the trio has plenty of space to breath and that is a major plus feature of this recording.

José James grew up in a musical environment where he soaked up his mother’s vinyl collection featured strongly in his upbringing alongside the music of his peers who were into nu-soul, rap and grunge, and the former has come up in handy for this new project on which both singer and trio excel. Billie Holiday would be proud of him and José James has unquestionably done a marvellous job of updating the evergreen compositions while still maintaining the jazz tradition from which they emerged several decades previously.

Tim Stenhouse