Jose James, Jef Neve Rekindle Jazz Flame

Nathan Galllagher
Jose James

When singer Jose James arrived at the cavernous Galaxy Studios in Brussels to spend a day with Belgian piano wunderkind Jef Neve, he had no intention of reviving an iconic jazz brand.

Instead, the two jazz musicians, who had already been singled out as the genre's young guns, were simply acting on an impulse to set some favorite standards to tape. Six hours later, with just a 9-foot Steinway concert grand piano and a single Neumann microphone set up in the middle of a warehouse-sized room, the two had produced 10 songs in 10 takes.

Those pop and jazz standards-including Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and George & Ira Gershwin's "Embraceable You"-will introduce James' sensual baritone to American jazz audiences. As his first official U.S. release, "For All We Know" also carries the weight of history behind it-it's the first new release on Verve Music Group's venerated Impulse label since 2004. At the same time, his much-praised "Blackmagic" album, which was released last year in the United Kingdom on DJ Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Recordings and features his collaborations with celebrated Los Angeles beatmaker Flying Lotus, was recently released digitally in the United States.

"I've been singing most of those songs since I was 17," James says. "When it's all said and done, jazz with a capital J is where I'm coming from. Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk-that's what I really studied when I was a teenager and what really fueled my passion. So even when I'm working with Moodyman or Flying Lotus, I'm always thinking about that tradition."

James grew up in Minneapolis, the son of a Panamanian saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist, and by his early teens was a fixture on the local jazz scene, performing with a variety of lineups and players. He attended the jazz program at the New School, studying with jazz elders Junior Mance and Chico Hamilton. But it was a chance encounter with Gilles Peterson, an influential U.K. radio personality and crate-digger with a knack for discovering raw talent, that helped move his career into high gear. After releasing his debut album, "The Dreamer," on Peterson's label, James began collaborating with a wide variety of electronic music producers, like British house music duo Basement Jaxx, German nu-jazz collective Jazzanova and Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison), who James calls "one of our treasures of American music right now."

"Jose is very much in the mold of Lou Rawls," says Maurice Bernstein, president of event promotion and marketing company Giant Step, who is working with Brownswood and Verve to elevate James' U.S. profile. "Rawls was a very fine jazz singer, but everyone knows him as a soul singer. Plus the fact that Jose is very much from the hip-hop world, I hear him, format-wise, as urban AC."

For Verve, "For All We Know" will feature prominently in the lead-up to the label's 50th-anniversary celebration of the Impulse imprint for later this year, and having James represent the label is an opportunity to bridge the gap between the hip-hop generation and the remaining jazz purists.

"Jose James is equal parts throwback and adventurer, which makes him the perfect artist to carry the Impulse label torch," says Dahlia Ambach-Caplin, Verve Music Group VP of A&R and executive producer of "For All We Know." Verve has enlisted Giant Step for promotions and helped support a brief Blackmagic tour in April, which included a live performance on noncommercial KCRW Los Angeles' "Morning Becomes Eclectic." In June, James and Neve will embark on a North American tour of jazz clubs and festivals, including two appearances at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

"Often, I'm the only jazz singer or even the only band on some festivals," James says. "I'm really trying to take my music-especially the jazz aspects of my music-to a younger, definitely more female audience. Women come for the music, and guys come for the women."