José James brings sumptuous soul-jazz to London’s Lafayette

Peter Jones
Saturday, March 11, 2023

The renowned vocalist enchants with his popular blend of jazz vocals and hip-hop influences

José James live at  Lafayette
José James live at Lafayette

Packed together like sardines, the crowd waited patiently for the star to appear at this relatively new North London venue, which more usually showcases rock acts. But instead of one star, five appeared: for this is by far the best band José James has assembled, at least in his visits to the UK. BIGYUKI (that’s how he styles himself) is a Glasperesque wizard on the keys, a fearless improviser with an ultra-modern sound, whose technical brilliance and good humour became an instant hit with the audience. Far less flamboyant, but just as impressive was 19-year old Ebban Dorsey on alto saxophone, a fluent and melodic player who has something of our own Camilla George about her.

In the past James has appeared a little modest - even reticent - on stage, but this band seems to have infused him with new energy. He generously gave them full reign, sometimes laying out for ten minutes or more while they did their thing. However, most of us were there to hear his take on Erykah Badu: his new album On & On is his tribute to her songwriting, following previous albums dedicated to Billie Holiday (2015) and Bill Withers (2018). Always spicing up his jazz vocals with hip-hop influences, he dazzled with what can only be described as live scratching: repeating and fragmenting lyrics as if twiddled by a DJ, and at one point even gradually slowing down a tune at the end as if the power had been switched off.

James is a true modernist, a progressive artist who sees it as his mission to slay the dragons of the old white male establishment. He can’t see why the jazz repertoire should still be dominated by songs up to a hundred years old, or why it should not include songs by artists like Badu, hence the album’s title track, plus ‘Green Eyes’, ‘Gone Baby’ et al. Never less than impressive as a performer, he has reached a new level of maturity and outspoken confidence, giving his audience plenty to chew on.

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