José James – Black Magic (Album Review)

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Black Magic is José James‘ second album, released on Brownswood Recordings and includes collaborations by an impressive set of out-wordly beat makers such as Flying Lotus, DJ Mitsu the Beats, Benga, Moodyman, BiLo, Taylor McFerrin and remix creatives Simbad and Joy Orbinson, also featuring Jordana De Lovely, a talented up and coming NYC based vocalist and songwriter.

José James is a jazz gem who seems to succeed ever so easily in combining the aesthetic of atmospheric soulful melodies, harmonious plays of dissonance and suave sense of rhythm. These often capricious and shy muses he subdues with a spell he titles Black Magic, bound by his blues-textured baritone voice and a rich rhythmic background that follows the key centre his voice sets, further enhanced by the under-caresses of echoing lyrics.

“Code” opens a two-tone sang musical line that enthrals the listener with first and third beat stress. This rhythmic motion carried by bass, synth and ever so feathery drums, forwards us into “Touch”, a delicate dissonance of piano chords…. Now you’re enchanted: the blue note is here and so is Jazz.

José James transports the heart and senses on subject matters of love and closeness throughout, with his velvety accentuations (“Lay You Down”, “Promise In Love”, “Save Your Love For Me”, “The Greater Good”, “Beauty”). The temporal relation and blending of instruments and voice is so smooth and sounds so natural that I regularly found myself having to consciously search the trumpet, piano, bass, drums, synth, and James’ voice. Is it a case of voice becoming instrument or instrument becoming voice… It sounded like both to me, but then again I was warned: this is Black Magic.

“Warrior” is an artful masterplay of superposed rhythms of synth sixteenth note tempo, playing off high strung piano chords, whilst José James’ inspired lyrics switch tempo lines and breaks, accelerates or decelerates the stream until the bass and drum take over. Breathless.

“Blackmagic” is a song that makes auditory love to its listener with James’ third beat emphasis whilst the guitar stresses the first, then both switch to lengthening that same delicious devilish beat. In “Detroit Love Letter”, the drum and José James dance with each other (‘feel like dancin’), momentum inviting. I was expectant of “Love Conversation”, the duo with Jordana De Lovely, and well satisfied with this smooth current of two voices, exchanging notes, tones and pitch that sound so instinctive yet so expert.

“No Tellin” made me smile wide when I was thunder struck by the parallel but transposed tempo structure and vocal stress of Gloria Gaynor‘s “I Will Survive” (possibly just my register bugging). It’s a track that develops into lower-pitch and departs rapidly from “Survive” but it was a surprising and playful allusion.  This first class album ends with closing track “Hidden”, on which James’ trebles’ soar, climbing, unstoppable.

–Nadia Ghanem

Bonus: Interview – Jose James discusses creating more than ‘just jazz’ (Video)

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