Published Mar 05, 2012Since bowling over audiences with his captivating debut disc a surprisingly short four years ago, José James has been expertly criss-crossing the line between smoothed-out club jazz and in-the-pocket street soul, with touches of beat culture sprinkled in to further expand his welcoming sonic envelop. With a new album waiting in the wings, leaks from which have whetted the appetite of many in the past weeks and months, there was a sense of wonder as to which side of his established musical spectrum James's live set would lean towards during his most recent Toronto appearance.
Local jazz mainstay Rich Brown led his Rinse the Algorithm crew through a mid-paced collection of buttery groves in the early going as concertgoers trickled into a venue that, at least at the outset, threatened to be a touch oversized (if not a stylistic mismatch) for the night's main attraction. Do Right! main man John Kong was up next on the wheels, serving up a satisfyingly fitting set of classic tunes and lesser-known gems before winding things up with the fresh and new Robert Glasper-Badu collobo "Afro Blue" that would welcome James to the stage.
After lamenting jokingly about having stepped on the ending of Glasper's jam, the singer got things going with an animated rendition of his familiar Blackmagic opener "Code" to the pleasure of all, before vamping slickly a cappella into "Save Your Love for Me." Through the expertly strung-together series of tunes that followed, each of the four men on stage took turns showcasing their individual musical vivacity, trading off a stream of inspired, praise-garnering solos to fill out the set's many breakdowns. For his part, James's own improvisations mimicked those of a beat-chopping DJ, his phrases pausing and rewinding in incredibly controlled fits and starts before slipping into spats of impressive interpolation, like his foray into kindred vocalist Gil Scott-Heron's "Winter in America" and "The Bottle" during James's run-through of "Park Bench People."
Highlights like these -- along with the many more stripped-down, detail-focused moments such as a particularly captivating Ray Charles nod -- managed to momentarily transform the Great Hall's overly spacious feel into that of a much more cozy nightclub. This spell would eventually give way to a noticeable din of audience chatter, however, with the presentation of jazzier and more unrecognizable fair during the show's closing stretch.
Thankfully, that bout of audience distraction proved temporary as the honey-rich baritone wrapped things up handily with a tweaked version of the night's most sought-after tune, "Trouble," editing in lyrical snippets of touchstone soul numbers "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Love and Happiness" to great effect. As the band departed the stage, they left the impression of four bright musicians with an inspiring level of technical ability, something that, despite the sweet sounds that win our hearts, doesn't always come across on record. It also marked a positive sign for James's upcoming release, whatever subtle twists and turns that the final product might take.