Rant’n’Roll: One-On-One With Jose James

  As part of his two-year world tour celebrating the music of legendary soul singer Bill Withers, New York City singer/songwriter/actor Jose James is making one of his first stops at The South Orange Performing Arts Center on Mar. 2 with guitarist Brad Allen, keyboardist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Nate Smith (masters all). James, who has already honored Billie Holiday and John Coltrane, is a singer’s singer, whose seventh CD, last year’s Love in a Time of Madness, was an oasis of beauty in our increasingly ugly country. He was to speak to Rant’n’Roll prior to a warm-up gig at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan but, alas, my old age prevented me from attending so he called shortly thereafter.

  Bill Withers will hit 80 this year. One hears so much about artists who “retire” and then don’t. Withers, at the height of his fame, fortune and awards, turned his back on stardom and we haven’t heard a peep from him in 25 years. Yet his songs — “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Just The Two Of Us,” “Saturday Night In Harlem” and dozens of others — remain indelibly bound in our national consciousness.

  “I’ve had Bill Withers material in my set for three years now and as with most jazz guys in my bands, it always turns into an extended gospel-funk jam to the point where it’s now a 20-minute medley which always seems to be the emotional high point of the set.”
  “He walked away from it all in his prime and never looked back. I got to meet him in Los Angeles about four months ago. He’s a total genius! I’d never met a smarter man. Completely self-assured. Yet an enigma. It’s impossible to ask him a direct question. Why did he walk away? Who did he listen to as a kid? What are his influences? How’d he learn to play guitar like that? How does he go about his craft when it comes to composition? It amazes me that we still don’t know so much about this man. I had been researching him for about six months before I met him and couldn’t find those answers! As far as his guitar playing was concerned, all he told me was that, ‘As a singer, you need chordal accompaniment.’ That was it! That’s all he gave me. So no, he doesn’t talk about the why but he did talk about the industry and how he believed in his sound and his voice so much that he didn’t care about a record deal. He’s the kind of guy who would’ve been happy to just write the songs and know they were there. A true artist! So he gets hugely famous but I don’t think he ever wanted it. I think Adele is similar in that respect. I feel I have a responsibility not only to Bill but to his fans, many of whom, like myself, have never seen him live. Yet the last thing I want to be is a cover band.”

  “Producer Don Was heard about the project. He called me and said he had to have it for Blue Note Records. I told him he could have it but on one condition:  he has to produce it. He goes, “Uh, I’m a little busy with the Rolling Stones right now.’ (Was is producing the first new Stones CD in 13 years.) But he moved a few sessions around and, since he’s good friends with Bill Withers, fit me right in. We will be cutting a studio album at Capitol in March for a September release. It’s pretty crazy.

  “I want to make sure the bedrock of this tour is solid. I’ve got jazz musicians in the band but if they’re going to perform Bill Withers, they need to understand country and funk as well. That’s a pretty tall order. There’s only about 40 musicians in the world who I would feel comfortable with so I got really lucky [hand-picking] these four. And Bill will be coming to one of these shows! So we have to be sure that the music lives in today yet is respectful to him. I mean, we are, after all, honoring him. If anything good comes from this, it’s that he comes to be publicly regarded as a songwriter who is on the level of Paul McCartney or Joni Mitchell. Where’s his Kennedy Center Honor? Where’s his Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award? At least he’s in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.”

  “This is the best thing I’ve ever done,” James concludes. “The compositions that Bill Withers wrote respects elders, values mentors and explores male vulnerability. What better way to bring light to the world while challenging the racist, fascist and sexist status quo?”
  Get ready, South Orange! This will be a night of nights. Who wants to go with me?