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José James talks about growing up on De La Soul and playing with McCoy Tyner 

click to enlarge José James, Saturday, March 21, 7 p.m. & 9:30 p.m., Dazzle, 1512 Curtis St., Denver, $15-$35; 303-839-5100, dazzledenver.com
  • José James, Saturday, March 21, 7 p.m. & 9:30 p.m., Dazzle, 1512 Curtis St., Denver, $15-$35; 303-839-5100, dazzledenver.com

It’s the morning after Super Tuesday, and José James has spent much of it on the phone with his booking agent, trying to sort out a tangled web of overseas show cancellations.

“The coronavirus is wreaking havoc on my tour schedule,” says the soulful singer-songwriter. “I’ve already had to cancel four shows in China, and Korea is next on the ‘maybe’ list, and Australia as well. The Japanese government’s canceled all shows in Japan until mid-May, and they might be canceling the Olympics. So it’s pretty hardcore.”

The good news is that James’ American dates are still on. Plus, he just released a new album called No Beginning No End 2, which returns to the sound of the 2013 collection that earned him comparisons to artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. In between, he’s recorded albums that vacillate between jazz, hip-hop and soul, as well as tribute records celebrating the music of Bill Withers and Billie Holiday.

The latter tribute was released on the 100th birthday of the legendary artist whose music taught James everything he knows about jazz singing. But, unbeknown to James, Cassandra Wilson had been simultaneously working on her own Holiday tribute, which she released a week after his.
“I only became aware of that when I didn’t get any work,” he says with a laugh. “I was like, why am I not getting booked?’ And then I looked at some festivals and realized that Cassandra Wilson had put out the exact same project, and she was getting all the work. And I was like, well, that was not the smartest move I’ve ever made.”

James is actually a long-time fan of Wilson, going back to her days with Steve Coleman in the ’80s avant-jazz M-Base collective, which came out of Brooklyn around the same time as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest’s Native Tongues collective. Both would become part of the young artist’s DNA.

“I heard all of those people at the same time in Minneapolis in high school,” says James, the son of a Panamanian saxophonist who went on to attend the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. “De La Soul Is Dead is one of my all-time favorite albums, and the whole Native Tongues scene is one of the reasons why I wanted to move to New York. I lived through the golden age of hip-hop as a kid, but now every single band that I grew up listening to is either dead or broken up: The Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Soundgarden, A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde. And, as we just saw yesterday, Public Enemy broke up. So all good things come to an end.”

But that spirit still lives on in the work of next-generation artists like James. He’s just co-founded his own artist collective and label called Rainbow Blonde, and continues to record with artists like Flying Lotus, Basement Jaxx and Aloe Blacc, who features on James’ new “Turn Me Up” single. And he still speaks with reverence of the dates he played a decade ago with the legendary jazz pianist and bandleader McCoy Tyner, who passed away last Friday.

“I learned so much from McCoy Tyner,” he recalls. “He has no ego, and he’s the most complimentary musician and bandleader I’ve ever worked with. He always had something positive to say about everybody’s involvement, and he’s 100 percent about the spiritual, uplifting aspect of the music. Also, it’s really impressive when you’re onstage with him, because you see how fast he is and how hard he hits the piano. The overtones ring out in a way you don’t hear on records or in the audience.”

But the big takeaway for James was as much a way of thinking as it was playing. “His music is really from the heart, and if you’re overthinking it and trying to do something slick and cool to, like, show off — which I totally did my first night — it just falls flat. Because that’s not the point of his music. I think on your first gig, you play to the reputation, not to the person. And then you realize, oh, they’re a person, and they hired me for a reason, and I belong here. And then you’re fine.”

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