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Review: Jose James’ vocal pyrotechnics take off in Santa Monica

Jose James onstage at Berkeley Street Studio in Santa Monica.
(Larry Hirshowitz)

During José Jamesencore performance of “Park Bench People” on Monday, all the musicians except drummer Nate Smith slowly dropped out of the mix until it was just a duet between James’ vocal pyrotechnics and Smith’s otherworldly beats.

James, the genre hybridist who claims both b-boys and jazz purists in his fan base, became so immersed in the music that his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He free-styled a rapid-fire, almost speaking-in-tongues recitation about refusing to sell his soul, and it was hard not to think about the Faustian bargain struck by blues icon Robert Johnson.

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It was a mesmerizing moment in an evening that has to rank as one of L.A.’s best concerts of the year, slotting alongside James’ already classic performance at Santa Monica’s Zanzibar last year.

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The night was part of KCRW-FM’s exclusive Berkeley Street Sessions concert series, hosted by legendary producer-mixer Bob Clearmountain at his Berkeley Street Studio in Santa Monica. (Early in the evening, before most of the crowd had arrived, Clearmountain regaled listeners with stories of working with everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Nile Rogers to Roxy Music.) KCRW taped the show, which included an interview conducted by the station’s own Tom Schnabel, for broadcast next month.

The night’s set-list was largely composed of songs from James’ fourth studio album, “No Beginning No End,” his debut release on iconic jazz label Blue Note. Scheduled for release next month, it’s a palette-stretching career high-water mark for the singer-songwriter, featuring collaborations with artists such as Amp Fiddler, Emily King, Hindi Zahra, Robert Glasper and celebrated bassist-producer Pino Palladino, who co-produced.

Kicking off the show with the album’s opening track and first single, “It’s All Over Your Body,” James and his stellar band (Kris Bowers, keyboards; Solomon Dorsey, bass and backing vocals; Takuya Kuroda, trumpet; Nate Smith, drums; Corey King, trombone) led the packed crowd through more than 90 minutes of music ranging from well-received new fare to a sparse but powerful cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The latter featured a simmering piano solo by Bowers (which led an admiring James to shake his head and grin, “That boy good!”) and a crowd-pleasing bit in which James mimed scratching a record as he re-created Withers’ signature vocal loop, “I know, I know, I know, I know…”

“Sword + Gun,” a gorgeously sensual work on the new album, was introduced by James as being a dream project with Hindi Zahra, and the layered North African textures of the recorded version were replaced by each band member clapping a different beat pattern, for a magnetic polyrhythmic effect.

On “Do You Feel” and “No Beginning, No End,” the band riffed and vamped beautifully, and part of the thrill was simply watching band members interact (i.e., James tapping Kuroda on the shoulder so he could play a clearly unplanned solo that ended up being masterful).

But the bigger thrill was simply swimming in the conversation being held by the musicians onstage, by their use of pauses and silence, their bending and stretching of notes that echoed and gracefully flew around each other before melding together. It was a powerful reminder of the power -- artistic and spiritual -- of music that is not canned, that is not rigidly programmed to merely re-create studio sounds.

And though James, whose rich baritone is becoming more impressively pliant and expressive with each record, doesn’t quite have the chops to be the belter that one or two moments aimed for, the elder statesman gravitas of his voice, coupled with his amiable ‘round-the-way demeanor (his dimpled grin had more than one woman, and a couple of guys, in the audience swooning audibly) make him a winningly singular presence in contemporary American music. Not just singular, but magnetic.

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