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Jazz vocalist Jose James talks inspiration, Flying Lotus, and tonight's Zanzibar gig

April 14, 2010 |  2:30 pm

L_82d9cadb20894bc3bf75c7b42c3becda With the genre perennially accused of atrophy, it's little surprise that precocious vocalist and "Jazz Times" darling Jose James has been hailed as a so-called "savior of jazz."  But the hype surrounding the Minneapolis-bred and Brooklyn-based crooner is well deserved, with his smoky, golden-throated grooves among the most dynamic to emerge from the tradition in recent memory.

Boasting the support of hugely influential British DJ Gilles Peterson, plus beats from Los Angeles producer wunderkind Flying Lotus, James' latest album, "Black Magic," reveals shades of D'Angelo, and his three chief sonic inspirations: John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Marvin Gaye. James isn't ready to enter that upper echelon just yet, but outside of Sade, few contemporary artists can match James' smooth voice, head-nodding beats and cosmic atmospherics. In advance of his show Wednesday night at Zanzibar, Pop & Hiss asked James about his high-profile collaborators, his inspirations, and the jazz tradition. Also, Pop & Hiss readers can get an exclusive free MP3 download of the "Black Magic" single, produced by Flying Lotus.

How did you come into contact with Gilles Peterson in the first place? What was it about your sensibilities that bonded you two and allowed you to work so well together?

I was in London in 2006 doing the London International Vocal Jazz Competition and had made my first EP in New York two weeks before. It was five tracks, including "The Dreamer" and two John Coltrane covers -- "Equinox" and "Central Park West." I spent a week there hanging out and met a lot of great DJs and musicians -- Gilles was doing a residency at Cargo and he was given a copy [and told] 'You need to check this out.' He gets a lot of music passed to him, but he later told me that "Equinox" happens to be one of two favorite 'Trane songs, so he checked it out right away. He loves jazz and I had found the one person who could go hard on a new jazz album blending different styles.

How did you and Flying Lotus meet and decide to work together? What is it about the collaborations that has brought out the best in each artist?

Lotus and I met through Gilles in London and I was already a big fan. I loved the "Reset" EP and "1983" album. I was in the middle of editing "The Dreamer" at Brownswood and we had 28 tracks done. I passed him all that and he asked me to do a vocal for "Visions of Violet," possibly for [Lotus' album] "Los Angeles." It was a real soulful Cali-type of track and it brought out a whole new side of me. I think jazz and hip-hop meet in soul, so we just kept working in that direction because the music sounded dope. He sent me a lot of tracks and I would loop some parts and write on top of it, then send it back. When we came up with "Black Magic" we were both like -- ah, there it is. We had found that connection.

You cite Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye and John Coltrane as central inspirations -- if you could pick one thing about each artist that you especially venerate, what would it be?

Billie Holiday and John Coltrane are my musical parents and Marvin Gaye is my favorite male vocalist. Billie has that direct way of speaking to you -- no matter how sophisticated what she's singing is, she's going right to the pain and honesty of human existence. Trane does exactly the same thing but advanced that through his spiritual energy combined with avant-garde harmonic group communication. His writing amazes me, written or improvised. Marvin was a magician -- and like Billie -- knew the keys to the human heart. He was searching for the same truth as Coltrane, but through the body, through love, and through complicated relationships.

Like hip-hop, jazz is frequently proclaimed "dead," even though the medium has continued to endure and even thrive under the radar. What is it about jazz that allows it to sustain itself beyond short-sighted critical obituaries? And to elaborate, how do you see yourself as an artist working within the jazz tradition?

Black music is under constant pressure to reinvent itself. It's like "you changed music as we know it -- what else can you do?" It's ridiculous. Basically, artists in the music world are concerned with making good music, period -- you do it for the love and because you are driven. I deeply respect the lineage I have inherited -- Louis Armstrong influenced every American singer of his time in some way, including Nat "King" Cole, who led Ray Charles to discover soul, which opened the door for Sam Cooke, Marvin, Al Green, Jimi Hendrix and D'Angelo. Now Madlib is throwing all this music around and the world is nodding to it. So it's all about the history, knowing where you come from, and then you let yourself unfold and advance. Jazz is a part of all that and always will be, but the key is advancement while knowing the tradition well.

If you could pick one thing, what's the most popular misconception about you -- both personal and musically -- that you'd like to set the record straight on?

I took a lot of heat for covering "Park Bench People" on "The Dreamer." In a hip-hop sense I get it because if I was a rapper that is considered biting. But as an artist in the jazz tradition I had found and reworked a classic hip-hop standard, which is what we do -- interpret songs that are meaningful to the community. I reached out to Myka 9 about it, and got the blessing to do it, and I love it.

-- Jeff Weiss

Jose James & Quadron (DJ Set), Wednesday night at Zanzibar, 1301 5th Street, Santa Monica, $20, 8:30 p.m.

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