"This record is all about capturing the moment," José James says of For All We Know, his upcoming Impulse! release. The album, a collaboration between James and noted Belgian pianist Jef Neve, finds the charismatic young vocalist applying his warm, rich baritone to a sterling assortment of timeless jazz and pop standards. The result is an eloquently spare, effortlessly expressive set, with James' vivid performances and the intimate duo format lending new emotional depth to such beloved classics as "Tenderly," "Body and Soul," "Everyday I Have the Blues," Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and George and Ira Gershwin's "Embraceable You."
For All We Know is José James' first album for Impulse! Records, as well as his first U.S. release. But the Minneapolis-born, London-based singer is already a sensation in Britain, Europe and Japan. Since his arrival on the international scene in 2008, audiences and critics alike have embraced the artist's talent and versatility, with his first two albums (released on influential DJ/producer Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Recordings label) winning James a reputation as both a rising star and a vital new creative force.
All but one of For All We Know's ten songs were recorded in a single informal six-hour session at Galaxy Studios in Mol, Belgium. The project came together spontaneously, after James and Neve performed together on a Belgian television show and Neve filled in for James' regular pianist at a concert in Brussels.
"It felt like we'd been playing together forever," José recalls. "I had the next day off, so I said 'Let's go in the studio and try to capture some of this vibe.' Jef booked this really nice studio, we let the tape roll, and that's the album. There was no producer, no overdubs, and most of the songs were first takes.
"It wasn't anything that we thought was gonna turn into a big release," he continues. "It was just something that we thought was really cool. We just played the songs we love the way we felt them, with no constraints. Playing as a duo is very pure and honest; it's just you, the piano and silence."
As impressive as For All We Know is, it presents just one aspect of José James' musical portfolio, whose expansiveness and diversity belies the artist's tender age. The son of a jazz-saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist father from Panama, José first embraced jazz in his early teens. By the age of 17, he had emerged as both a budding performer and a serious student of jazz history and technique, performing around Minneapolis in a variety of lineups with an assortment of seasoned local jazz players.
"I realized early on that I could connect with people through music," José recalls. "I wasn't thinking much about making it into a career; I was just caught up in the excitement of making music. I also realized that the vocal developments in jazz progressed with the instrumental developments, and that the instrumentalists' rhythmic and harmonic sophistication was absorbed and transmuted by the singers of the day. That really opened my eyes, and helped to give me a direction and a focus."
José's musical development continued after a move to New York, where he attended the New School's prestigious jazz program, studying with instrumental legends Junior Mance and Chico Hamilton, both of whom subsequently invited him to perform on their recordings.
In 2006, while participating in a vocal competition in London, José met Gilles Peterson, who was sufficiently impressed with his talents to sign him to Brownswood Recordings. He released a pair of acclaimed, mostly self-written albums for the label, The Dreamer and Blackmagic. In addition to showcasing the artist's vocal and songwriting gifts, those albums combined his deep-rooted jazz sensibility with elements of classic soul, contemporary R&B, hip-hop and drum 'n' bass.
James' growing notoriety led to him collaborating on record with a wide assortment of jazz, club and hip-hop acts, including Basement Jaxx, Nicola Conte, Toshio Matsuura, Jazzanova, Flying Lotus, Christian McBride, Elan Mehler, the Heritage Orchestra, Robert Mitchell, Jazzy Sport and Simbad. He also established a reputation as a magnetic live performer, appearing at such hallowed venues as London's Royal Festival Hall, the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Vitoria Jazz Festival, Billboard Live in Tokyo, Centro Cultural in Sao Paolo, the Hermitage of St. Petersburg and Central Park Summerstage in New York.
Like José, pianist Jef Neve has quickly established himself as one of jazz's most exciting young talents. Already an established figure in his homeland of Belgium and a rising star in the rest of the world, he's released five best-selling albums that have won international acclaim. The Jef Neve Trio has performed throughout Europe, including appearances at many of the world's most prestigious jazz festivals. In 2009, Neve debuted his first piano concerto, with the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra, and won additional notoriety for his musical score for director Felix Van Groeningen's film The Misfortunates.
Having already won the hearts of international audiences, José James is inspired by the opportunity to make a splash in his home country. "It's so exciting, and it's a huge honor to be on Impulse; it's Trane's house. I'm very proud of this record, and I love being able to give back to the music that nurtured me."
With a background that encompasses all manner of diverse musical pursuits, José James sees the potential for many different kinds of records in his future.
"I've never wanted to stay in one place," he states. "Jazz has always been about looking forward and experimenting and trying new things. If For All We Know has an influence on my direction in the future, it's to make me more open to taking chances and seeing where the moment takes you. That's what this record was about for me, and that's what I want to keep doing."