Brooklyn-based jazz vocalist-composer Jose James planted himself on our radar back in 2010 with BlackMagic. It was his second album for Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings, a fitting home for a record that found its fitting somewhere between jazz, R&B, soul, and beat-driven music. Whereas most will argue that James’ music now only possesses those first three qualities—and they’d be right—you must remember that this is a guy who was recording with Flying Lotus when we weren’t watching the Brainfeeder don’s every move. While James was able to maintain a cohesive sound on BlackMagic thanks to his signature smooth vocals, the overall approach was slightly muddled.
But three years later, the BK resident has found his focus. Since fittingly joining the Blue Note Records camp in 2012, he has moved closer and closer to a straight-up jazz-R&B hybrid with choice singles and, most recently, his third full-length. With that in mind, No Beginning, No End is unquestionably James’ most focused and cohesive release to date. As one song slips calmly into the next for the hour-long running time, it feels as if you’re sitting in on the band’s studio sessions. The mood is calm and smoky, like a dimly lit jazz lounge where everyone knows each other and sips his or her favorite bourbon drink. Everyone claps for the select solos and nods in agreement as the players hit their tightest grooves before James leaves the microphone with a sly whisper on album-closer “Tomorrow”.
Somewhat similarly, opener “It’s All Over (Your Body)” with James’ voice wrapping you in a gentle embrace as horns exhale lightly. Elsewhere, “Do You Feel” is straight butter with stop-and-start piano strokes and “Tomorrow” tugs at your heartstrings with lovelorn lyrics. Most notable is “Trouble”, the liveliest cut of the bunch that’s led to some stellar live performances on the late-night circuit. It’s not all about love, however; “Sword + Gun” is a mild-mannered anti-war jam featuring smoky guest vocals from Hindi Zahra, steady hand claps, and the right amount of brass and percussive flourishes.
No Beginning, No End is familiar, but not in the dreadful way of running into “that” dude in your hometown as you begin to feel waves of nausea. Rather, it’s familiar like that aforementioned beverage, warming you up and challenging you to enjoy it by sipping and not drowning yourself in booze. It feels like you have heard it before, though each note, chord change, and vocal delivery remains refreshingly potent. James and his band aren’t trying to wow you with progressive blasts of brass or wild percussion solos. They’re wooing you with tightly knit songwriting and dreamy constructions.