There's something that is just simply transfixing about José James. Maybe it's the fact that he's not afraid to live at that intersection where jazz and soul meet. His work is constantly experimenting with both forms, borrowing jazz's unconventional structure to add an unexpected richness to his soulful sound. Ever since hearing his dreamy tenor on the D'Angelo-esque "It's All Over (Your Body)" and the bluesy soul of "Trouble" more than a year ago, anticipation has been high for his Blue Note Records debut No Beginning No End. Not only does José deliver on the high expectations, he and his carefully curated list of collaborators, including Robert Glasper, pianist Kris Bowers, Pino Palladino and Emily King, deliver a heady rush of music perfect for a romantic rendezvous or a rainy afternoon.
If you're familiar with James' previous work, then No Beginning No End is almost exactly what you expect from him: a solid collection of love songs to take listeners from those first rushes of love into the throes of passion. Still, these love songs don't always stick to the typical mold. Where he channels his inner D'Angelo for album opener "It's All Over (Your Body)," he also mines North African influences and a bit of Afrobeat alongside French-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra for "Sword + Gun." As well, the funky grit of "Trouble" is balanced well with the nearly straight ahead jazz of the Robert Glasper-produced "Vanguard." It's this toying with the expected and unexpected that give the album its appeal. Songs like the gospel-flavored "Do You Feel" and the stutter-stopping "Make It Right" play off the more conventional feel of songs like title track "No Beginning No End" and album closer "Tomorrow," making you anticipate what exactly he'll do next. And what's most interesting is that he does this all without including anything above mid-tempo whatsoever.
Of course, the pace of the album might be a bit off-putting for those unfamiliar with James' oeuvre. Aside from the hand claps and bass thump of "Sword + Gun," nothing here is rushing toward the finish line. Instead, the songs are allowed to wander and breathe, resulting in intoxicating grooves that are easy to get lost in. Take "Heaven on the Ground" for instance. The pairing of Jose and Emily King (who penned the track) takes its time, its lolling guitar and bass playing effortlessly with José and Emily's complementary vocals as the song drifts along. Then there's the Leon Ware-inspired "Bird of Space," a slow, bedroom-ready groove that lulls you in and wraps around you like silk sheets as José's voice serenades.
Though No Beginning No End is near flawless, it does have its one misstep. Surprisingly, it's the Emily King-penned "Come to My Door." Though the pair have an obvious chemistry when collaborating, this track (which doesn't feature Emily and was originally intended for her debut East Side Story) just doesn't work for some odd reason. Maybe it's because it doesn't feature Emily or perhaps it just doesn't feel as mature as what surrounds it. Either way, it's just a nice song that sticks out when surrounded by far superior ones.
The wait for No Beginning No End was a long one. Still, if José had kept fans waiting for two years or 20, output of this quality would be far more than worth the wait. Not only does José show that he can borrow from and bend genres as he pleases, he also shows that he can defy them altogether and just simply make great music.
José James No Beginning No End [Amazon][iTunes]