José James: No Beginning No End
Late at night, when tigers begin to wake and prowl and humans tuck their children too tightly under their cartoon mascot bedspreads (perfect guides for the aforementioned tigers to zero in on), thoughts often turn to romance. For those who are alone, there might be a dismissive tut-tut before falling asleep. Tigers will be satisfied with cries of terror coming from helpless deer. Some of the more sentimental among us, though, will bend our minds upward, searching through the heavens for visions of our soulmate. Inevitably, those fantasies have to descend to Earth, and when they do they often congregate around cities. Some of our most romantic cities are especially potent magnets for love fantasies. Many think of Paris, Venice, London, maybe New York or San Francisco. Coastal cities, cities with scope and brilliant architectural or natural views for gazing at. Personally, I my imagination turns toward…Minneapolis:
Don’t laugh. Prince is from there. In his wake, Minneapolis has been known as a locus of innovative funk, R&B, and soul music since the late 1970s, when José James was born in the better known of the Twin Cities. Known to this point as a jazz singer, James has broadened his musical ambitions with No Beginning No End, an album that exemplifies artistic unity even as it presents smoldering R&B songs, extended, melodic jazz pieces, and crystal-clear neo-soul jams. What holds the album together more than anything else is a unified mood, a kind of subdued passion made possible by superb singing, songwriting, and playing on the part of James and his collaborators.
Those collaborators include Robert Glasper, a skilled pianist who helmed a similarly wide-ranging project, Black Radio, which was released last year. Listening to them back to back one might think they were separated at conception. Where Black Radio sought to explore the blurring boundaries between different strands of African American music and featured a broad ensemble of guest stars, No Beginning No End is a more unified endeavor that, despite its eclectic mix of styles, retains James as a singular personality at its core.
The album, which was released on legendary jazz label Blue Note, begins with a clatter of Chris Dave’s drums that eventually congeals into a settled pattern, smoky and cool. “It’s All Over Your Body,” the song that builds up from this percussive base, sets the vibe. James sings in a clear, confident voice and tends to favour the smooth and simmering over flashy dramatics. This is largely true of the instrumental arrangements as well: Glasper’s piano, the funk horn section, and bassist Pino Palladino keep the rhythms tight and the volume down, letting the listener soak into the thick atmosphere of the track’s layered production. Even more rhythmically involved tracks, like the North African inspired “Sword + Gun” emphasize restraint and an easygoing feel that let James’ romantic, sensual songwriting shine.
Near the end of the album, No Beginning No End lays down its definitive song. At over eight minutes long, “Bird of Space” winds through spacious textures defined by an infectious bass line. Cool, but not cold, it luxuriates in its acoustic guitars, soft electric piano, and brushed drums. “See the silence of the moment/All alone inside/You belong to me,” James croons, and here the lyrics and musical arrangement come into their own in a stronger way than in any other song on the record. James’ is able to evoke feelings of closeness and passionate pining with few elements and little variation, showing how completely he has mastered the mood he cloaked us in eight tracks earlier.
With tempos this slow and temperaments this reserved, one would expect a much lower intensity level from James’ Blue Note debut. It is this album’s remarkable achievement, though, that songs that could be lethargic or merely sad are brought to life through skillful pacing, involving songwriting, and agile playing from the band. Twisting and morphing from one genre to another, the different songs sound different enough to be readily distinguished from each other but obviously exist in the same headspace. For those with an hour to spare and a desire to bask in slow-burning but passionate music, No Beginning No End will work bluesy wonders.