You'd be forgiven for previously assuming that José James was a man with something to prove. There was that decade he spent reshaping jazz with the genre-blurring verve of a crate-digging beat guru. And that time he declared his jazz career was over, ditched the bands, and became a solo R&B star. And then there were the last couple years he spent living in Bill Withers' shoes -- recording and touring that legendary songbook for the Lean On Me project, a feat as brazen as they come. Now, well, it's not that James is out of mountains to climb, but sometimes you gotta stop to consider the one you've already got under your feet. Thus, the satin-voiced songwriter's latest is No Beginning No End 2, a sequel to his 2013 album that resurrects the bold eclecticism we first fell in love with, while taking us on a journey through both celebration and introspection.
"I have to give Bill credit," says James. "Touring as a four-piece, I got to feel how transformative it is to dig into music with a real band. I think he led me back to that high-level singer-songwriter material -- stuff that's hooky and funky and with jazz running through it -- that's joyful without being corny. That was the hallmark of No Beginning No End, mixed with that New York hip-hop element. After the tour, I wrote a thing on Instagram saying I was thinking about No Beginning No End 2 and people went insane. They wrote thousands of comments about how the first one changed their life. I don't sit around and think 'my work is so important' so that was kinda nice."
Of course, things are a little different this time around. For one, while the prequel was James' Blue Note debut, this is his first set of new music for his own label/collective Rainbow Blonde Records. Secondly, the album is chock-full of collaborators who are auteurs in their own right -- Laura Mvula, Aloe Blacc, Ledisi, Erik Truffaz, and Hindi Zahra, to name a few -- appearing in unexpected sonic contexts. Thirdly, with the backing of a wildly good band held down by rhythm sections in Los Angeles and Brooklyn (befitting Rainbow Blonde's bicoastal status) the songs are warmer and more defined than ever, balancing classic songwriting against immersive vibe.
For James, all of these pieces are related, and speak to a constellation of small but vibrant artist communities in constant communication. "I hope people see this as an update not of my career, but the entire scene," he says. "If somebody told me two years ago I'd be running my own label with my friends, having my own sessions, and singing hard bop anthems while sipping red wine with Laura Mvula in London, I'd be like, 'Nah, that's crazy.' But we're trying to connect the dots on a global level and that's sort of the whole concept: no beginning, no end, no boundaries."