Jose James, “Yesterday I Had the Blues” (Blue Note)
Jose James may or may not have been afflicted with the blues at some point in his life. A decidedly deep-blue soulfulness nevertheless shades the nine songs heard on the Minneapolis-born singer’s tribute to Billie Holiday, who would have turned 100 this Tuesday. The set features music written or popularized by Holiday, whose influence as a jazz singer and performer still looms large.
Each of these tunes is played at a luxuriously slow tempo, by three musicians who understand the underappreciated art of grooving in way-laidback mode: Jason Moran on piano and Rhodes, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Eric Harland.
An appealing aural spaciousness and resonance are at the heart of the sound of this Don Was-produced recording, starting with opener “Good Morning Heartache,” as the trio begins with a heartbeat rhythm and relaxes into opening chords before James glides in, singing notes on the lower end of his range. Mid-song, Moran offers an understated solo. The singing and playing, here and elsewhere, feel marvelously lived-in.
Unhurried, too, is the defining feel of “Body and Soul,” which opens with unaccompanied piano and voice, and then Patitucci, his bass woody and grinding, and Harland go it alone at the start of “Fine and Mellow,” which opens up for a bending, stretching solo romp by Patitucci. “I Thought About You,” entirely absent of bass and drums, is pure intimacy, regret, and nostalgia, bolstered by Moran’s series of crystalline piano flurries and swinging solo.
The disc closes with two Holiday favorites, a version of “God Bless the Child” bolstered by a heavy backbeat and warmed by Moran’s Rhodes piano, and a haunting, spiritual-like take on “Strange Fruit,” complete with handclaps and James’ own stacks of humming vocals.
“Yesterday” won’t soon be forgotten.