José James ‘Lean On Me’ 2LP/CD (Blue Note) 3/5

Devoting a whole album to the songs of Bill Withers is no easy task since this songbook has become an integral part of the musical landscape and there is the key question of how do you deal with them differently without losing something of the original brilliance in the process? In the case of José James, he has rightly taken the decision to not tamper too much with the original arrangements and this has resulted in a competent series of covers which, while not bettering the superlative originals, for the lesser known songs at least, has breathed new life into them. Of the absolute classics such as ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and ‘Lovely Day’, how is it possible for anybody to improve upon those beautifully crafted originals? James, for the former, has stripped away the strings and created a more intimate sound with electric piano and given the song a slightly more contemporary vibe, while for the latter, the hi-hat cymbals accompaniment remains. It is on the funkier material where James succeeds best in imparting his own personality on proceedings, as on the understated, ‘The Same Love That Made Me Laugh’, with the subtle use of keyboards and percussion. Likewise, ‘Hello Like Before’ adopts a soulful approach, with an acoustic guitar-led intro and a slight Brazilian undercurrent. Aiding José James in the project are some notable guests including Lalatha Hathaway on vocals, Marcus Strickland on saxophone and Takuya Kuroda on trumpet, while the overall production comes courtesy of artistic label director, Don Was. José James has previously devoted projects to the music of both John Coltrane and Billie Holiday and, while worthwhile endeavours in their own right, one does yearn for the real José James to emerge and one whose jazz and soul credentials combine, for that is surely where his career lies at the intersection between the two.

Tim Stenhouse