Jose James on Covering the 'Sacred Music' of Bill Withers

Jose James on Covering the 'Sacred Music' of Bill Withers


The singer-songwriter’s tribute album ‘Lean on Me’ is out as we speak

The first time that vocalist José James coated a Bill Withers track in live performance, it was round 2013. James and his band have been jamming on their monitor “Trouble” (from his Blue Note debut album No Beginning No End), once they segued into the Withers basic “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

“’Trouble’ has a cool, down-home undercurrent that lets me do my human DJ factor,” says James. “It’s the place I put completely different songs on that beat, like ‘Love and Happiness,' 'Let’s Get It On’ and 'Ain’t.'”

In response to fan response at subsequent exhibits, “Ain’t” finally expanded right into a 20-minute tour de pressure jazz/R&B Withers medley that additionally featured “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)” and “Grandma’s Hands.” Five years later, that seed has sprouted extra offshoots.

“When I came upon that Bill was turning 80 this yr,” recollects James, “I assumed it might be an incredible time to do a sequence of live shows honoring him. Then Don [Was, president of Blue Note] stated it’s going to be an album. Six months later I discovered myself inside Capitol’s Studio B.”

Lean on Me, launched as we speak (Sept. 28), is the fruits of James’ work in that legendary studio. Beyond the title minimize and the aforementioned “Grandma’s Hands” and “Who Is He,” the 12-track set boasts extra Withers gems corresponding to “Kissing My Love,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Better Off Dead” and “Lovely Day” that includes Lalah Hathaway. A video for “Day,” filmed in Los Angeles, is forthcoming. Check out the album trailer right here:

Following a current dialog and acoustic efficiency on the Grammy Museum on behalf of the album, James will resume his tribute tour on Oct. 19 in Roanoke, Virginia. Upcoming stops embody Washington, D.C., New York and Tokyo.

Starting with a want checklist of 65 Withers songs, James obtained the singer-songwriter’s blessing over dinner in Hollywood previous to recording. Adds the clearly jazzed artist, “I heard from Bill’s daughter Kori [who recently performed with James at the Hollywood Bowl] that he actually enjoys the album.”

Below, James talks extra in regards to the behind-the-scenes course of, the toughest Withers track to carry out and sporting an Afro for the primary time:

The balancing act concerned in paying tribute to a legend

You must have deep respect and reverence for the artist and, much more so, for the message. When you’re speaking about artists like Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Elton John, you’re speaking Mount Olympus. Where a tribute can go mistaken is within the intent. It’s not about making an attempt to outdo them.  Or doing it as a result of your profession wants a lift. There must be a why past the songs or an artist being cool or turning 80. It’s about easy methods to do it in a method that’s respectful and never boring.

Don and I talked about whether or not we must always do that as a result of it’s sacred music. In the Trump period of #MeToo, gun management and #blacklivesmatter, there are such a lot of scorching button subjects going round proper now. I used to be born in 1978 and my mother was and nonetheless could be very political. She advised me in regards to the late ‘70s, Nixon, preventing for ladies’s rights, and so on. I really feel like we’re at that second once more. Bill wasn’t a political artist per se, however a track like “Lean on Me” sung now could be a really robust, non-partisan, humanistic assertion I wished to make. I don’t know if everybody will decide up on that however it’s the best way I wanted to do it.

Which Withers songs are the toughest and best to carry out

They all have a problem vocally since you’re coming into one other vocalist’s feelings and lyrical idea. I labored with a vocal coach — to not change the best way I sing, however to technically adapt to his music. Bill is from the South so he’ll open up on sure vowels in a method I'm not accustomed to. It’s a really technical factor.

On “Kissing My Love,” I take pleasure in enjoying with that as an interpreter, placing my hip-hop era swag on it. There are so many delicate layers to Bill’s music; he’s one of the crucial sampled artists by hip-hop. So I attempted to place that feeling of as we speak’s playful Drake power into the track. Emotionally, “Lean on Me” is the toughest. It’s so easy when it comes to association and the whole lot is on the voice. It’s soul and pop but additionally very a lot church. “Lean” is sort of my Hamlet monologue second, a rallying name for brotherhood and sisterhood. It’s robust to do, however it’s not for me. It’s to assist any person and for a era that hasn’t but found Bill Withers.

Fave songs that didn’t make the minimize

There’s the deep album monitor “Family Table.” When I heard it the primary time, it was so soulful and I liked the message. But once I tried it with the band, it appeared like karaoke and broke my coronary heart. Another is “I Want to Spend the Night.” I used to be so positive that I used to be going to kill that track. But once more there was nothing particular about my take. I needed to understand it’s not in regards to the sound however the feeling. It was like going procuring and seeing clothes that you simply assume goes to look nice on you. Then you strive it on and hate it on you.

His magnificent Afro 

It’s the final word signal of "black is gorgeous." For higher or worse, I’m generally known as the jazz singer for the hip-hop era. So I used to be anticipated to do a jazzy or J Dilla model of Bill. I didn’t do both. When folks see the ‘fro, the bell bottoms and that I’m utilizing the identical sort of acoustic guitar that he used, I would like them to know that Bill’s music is protected in my and my band’s palms, that I respect the tradition.

Plus it appears to be like fly. In highschool I had braids like Kris Kross, and I’ve additionally worn dreads. But that is my first Afro and I find it irresistible. It’s additionally a dialog starter: folks simply stroll up, smile and say I really like the hair. I’ve discovered an incredible barber in L.A. who has the true shears from again within the day. So I feel it’s right here to remain. [Laughs.]

Key profession takeaway: Bill could be very intuitive. He knew he had one thing valuable [with his music]. He wished to guard it and he did. When I’m gone, I hope folks will look again at my physique of labor and observe that JJ had one thing to say. And that possibly I helped a few folks alongside the best way.