WhatsUp Interview: Jose James Brings the Music of Bill Withers to Newport Jazz

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Bill Withers is hot. Everybody seems to be piling well-deserved praise onto the 80-year-old man and his music. A year after the Newport Folk Festival presented a special set dedicated to the legend who wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the Jazz Festival is presenting a set entitled “Lean On Me: José James Celebrates Bill Withers.”

It’s certain to be a “Lovely Day” when James brings his show to Newport – actually two sets over two days. He plays the evening Tennis Hall of Fame show Friday and the main Festival on Saturday. James is looking forward to returning to Newport.

“It’s pretty cool, man, I’m not gonna lie. It’s cool to have that kind of support from the festival. It’s a great honor,” he explained in a phone interview with WhatsUpNewp. He also pointed out that it’s not all flashbulb moments and standing ovations.

“It’s a funny thing being in music, a lot of what we do, we labor in obscurity. Like a sculptor or a painter, you work alone. You write alone, you practice alone. Then all of the sudden, you’re bringing your ideas in front of audiences and other musicians. It’s really beautiful but it can be scary too.”

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He’s played some of the Wither’s songs at concerts in the past, but expects to add a couple to the set at Newport. “I wanted to play some shows before we did the album which is coming out in September,” he noted.

So why Bill Withers, we wondered? James explains …

“Bill Withers is an interesting person. I don’t think there is any other black artist in the world except for Sade who is that famous who we know so little about. He’s a fascinating person. The more I learn about him, the more I really respect his journey. He came from a poor family, a coal mining family in one of the poorest areas of the United States and became one of the biggest stars of his time with one song. You can’t write that – it’s that true American success story.

“Even more remarkable is the way he wrote, which I think is still underappreciated. A song like ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ it’s very short, it doesn’t have any of the sort of conventional hook things, there’s no intro, there’s no chorus, you known what I mean? Somehow it strikes this chord in everyone who hears it, everyone knows exactly what he is talking about and every songwriter wishes they had written something like that.

“When you think of a Coltrane or a Hendrix or somebody who broke the mold, or even Carole King, it’s kind of done in an obvious way. With Bill, it’s very subtle, it’s very emotional. That’s been fascinating. And also, he’s still here. I’m terrified of him eventually coming to a show, probably in LA,” joked James.

James grew up in Minneapolis, raised on R&B, Michael Jackson, and of course, Prince. “He was the coolest, admittedly that’s a very cool thing. I think the city was remarkably sophisticated but accessible. The city felt very much like a small town at that time.”

“It prepared me for my journey and my generation’s relationship with jazz. The most consistent question I’ve heard in the last ten years is ‘Why did you do jazz? How did you get into jazz in the age of hip hop?’ It’s funny because jazz and hip hop have this very close connection. Most hip hop artists and producers hire jazz musicians when they play live. I just opened up for Common a couple of weeks ago. You start to realize jazz is the thread through American music. For me, once you sort of understand that constellation, you see jazz the way Quincy Jones does, like a special sauce just makes everything a little bit more sophisticated and a little bit more interesting.

James is in his late 20s and was a bit of a teen prodigy. At 17, he spent a summer writing lyrics to John Coltrane’s classic “Equinox.” “That song got me my first record deal,” he explained proudly.

James promises that he will be singing “Lovely Day,” a popular request “an amazing song, it’s the sound of summer.” He also shared enthusiasm for his “incredible band” playing the show, which included Nate Smith on drums, Ben Williams on bass, Sullivan Fortner on keys and Brad Allen Williams on guitar. Click here for tickets and more information.

 

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