“No Beginning No End sums up how I feel about music right now,” says JosÃ© James of his Blue Note Records debut. “I don’t want to be confined to any particular style. I decided I didn’t want to be considered a jazz singer anymore and that was really freeing. Once I realized that jazz singing is just something that I do and it’s just a label, it freed me as an artist to just write without any boundaries.”
No Beginning No End is a seamless musical experience that moves between different styles with remarkable fluidity, bound together by James’ transcendent voice. It marks a new chapter in the artistic journey of the 33-year-old singer/songwriter. Conceived, recorded and produced independently without any recording contract, the album is his most personal statement yet.
Along the way, he recruited a mighty team of collaborators that include noted producer/bassist Pino Palladino; pianist/composer and fellow Blue Note artist Robert Glasper; R&B singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Emily King; international French-Moroccan singing star Hindi Zahra; and the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition winner Kris Bowers. “I feel like this is my first album as an artist,” James says, “This is the first time in which there were no label, no A&R – nothing but myself and my relationship and history with my music.”
James has already established himself as a trailblazer for his intoxicating blend of jazz, hip-hop, R&B and electronica from his previous three albums. His 2008 debut The Dreamer and its 2010 follow-up, BlackMagic – both produced by the world-renowned DJ Gilles Peterson – transformed the Minneapolis-born, New York-based singer into an underground sensation in both the modern jazz and DJ culture scenes. His musical path follows its own rhyme and reason. James is a musical omnivore, an artist that resists being pigeonholed, equally at ease on stage with jazz legend McCoy Tyner as he is in the studio with rapper Oh No or electronica pioneer Flying Lotus.
Ben Ratliff described James’ musical magic in a February 2012 edition of The New York Times: “He’s a romantic baritone with a deep-funk band, stretching out songs, evoking both the ’70s of Roberta Flack and Gil Scott-Heron and the ’90s and oughts of J Dilla,” then making smart comparisons to R&B superstar D’Angelo but distinguishing James as “a very different kind of singer than D’Angelo. He’s a little more acoustic singer-songwriter, a little more delicate.”
On No Beginning No End, James shows an even deeper regard for pop song structures while retaining the “element of surprise” associated with jazz. Much of the music draws upon James’ love for the softer sounds of late-’60s and ’70s R&B, particularly the music of Flack, Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye. In fact, it was meeting Gaye’s legendary collaborator Leon Ware, who produced Gaye’s seminal 1976 LP I Want You, that inspired James to write the lamenting “Bird of Space.” “Leon really brought me back to a place that inspired my music, just when I was learning about how artists really worked together,” James says. “‘Bird of Space’ goes back to The Dreamer with a very intimate, sensual atmosphere and with the musical cycle looping. That’s probably my most personal song in terms of lyrics.”