Two thousand fifteen marks the one hundredth birthday of two legendary singers who surpassed traditional categories: Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. In his latest album, singer of the millennium José James, whose recordings are capturing increasing attention and acclaim, has suppressed his own vocal personality to honor one of those singers.

One might expect James to pay tribute to Sinatra, another baritone singer of popular songs.

But James chose Holiday.

Or perhaps Holiday chose James.

Even as James has developed his own distinctive style, Billie Holiday’s singing has remained in his soul since he heard her when he was a toddler. James wrote this: “Her voice was mastery—of pain, of trauma, of faith in music and the power of transformation. I had found my teacher. Billie Holiday made me want to be a jazz singer and set me on a path that I’m walking today.”

So after hearing some of James’s previous albums, one would expect re-interpretations, an updating, “re-imaginings” of Holiday’s classic recordings.

No so.

James has too much respect for her music to do that. He’s true to Holiday’s legacy and is entirely straightforward in his approaches. Certainly respectful, his stylistic decision honors Holiday’s spirit and the circumstances of her recordings as she captured listeners’ hearts with her honesty. Even so, the irony of Yesterday I Had the Blues is that James has suppressed his own electrifying musical personality to pay tribute to a singer who would never have done that.

The same restraint is true of James’s excellent accompanists, who have all individually summoned the musical furies in some of their previous recordings. One is struck by the beauty of simplicity in Jason Moran’s solo of descending half notes when he performs between James’s lyrical bookends on “Body and Soul.” Those notes expand into chords, as if their outlines were gradually completed with hues. But this solo is nothing like Moran’s forceful work on his own albums. John Patitucci’s authoritative solo on “Fine and Mellow” certainly is exactly that as he evokes the heartfelt hurt of the blues with a sauntering swagger. James captures that feel with his own blues-drenched quarter tones. But the project is drenched with deference too, and that deference is its strength and its weakness.

Yesterday I Had the Blues, which unabashedly asserts James’s devotion to Holiday’s recordings, draws out of him stylistic characteristics unheard on, but buried within, previous recordings. For one thing, the album features, as never before, James’s vocal control, not just in being on pitch, but also in the way he shapes a note as it heightens a song’s tension. For another, his unembellished approach, obviously dedicated to Holiday’s spirit, amplifies through implication his feeling for the music. “I Thought About You” remains at the same volume throughout with no ostentation, gently even, but James’s no-nonsense interpretation incorporates, if one listens closely, slight blue notes. And then there’s Moran’s gorgeous coruscating solo on “I Thought About You,” bluesy but modest and modern with bell-like clarity.

With his trio of equally committed accompanists, James proceeds through his selection of songs associated with Holiday, unswerving from his own unembellished soulfulness throughout until the final track. That track, “Strange Fruit,” occurs without the accompanists, though. Multi-tracking creates a wordless deep-South hum with an end-of-phrase clap on this brave song. James takes his time delivering with reverb but without over-dramatization the lyrics, whose effectiveness can hush an audience.

Jams will be on tour this summer as he evokes the spirit of Billie Holiday. His singing will be well worth a listen. Yesterday I Had the Blues is the album that will introduce José James to a larger audience beyond his existing fan base.


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