Who would have predicted back in, say, the mid-70s, that we would be drowning in jazz and standards albums, singers slyly confessing that they really, really always loved this music, even as they made their money elsewhere? There is a lot of wheat to separate, even though most of it is of the GMO variety, and hard to hear anything with fresh ears.
Make a large exception for Jose James’ new album, “Yesterday I Had The Blues.” I missed James up until now, but from what I read he’s dabbled in several genres with a couple of albums of standards under his belt, counting this one. “Yesterday…” is billed as a tribute to Billie Holiday, though listening to it I didn’t think much about her; instead I was caught by the unity of the feel, from start to finish. It’s mostly ballads, and to get all metaphorical, it’s music for sitting in a bar as the sun goes down. More exactly, its lineage goes straight back to Sinatra’s slow theme albums of the 1950s. Everything lingers here; even “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” is measured.
You can call it mood music, and I suppose it is because even though the individual songs – “Good Morning Heartache,” “Body and Soul,” “I Thought About You,” to name three – are obvious American Songbook classics, there is a sameness to the album as it plays through that extends and deepens the mood – sort of like late afternoon to sundown. That’s a feature, not a bug, to my ear.
(That said, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the concluding “Strange Fruit.” Even though James takes a good run at it here, it’s a hard song to place on any album. I dunno; thinking about it.)
The other obvious point of reference is Johnny Hartman’s album with John Coltrane, over and above the broad similarities in voices. Jason Moran on piano is at least James’s equal all the way through; as in Hartman-Coltrane, you’re moved by both the music itself and by the musical intelligences at work.
I have a feeling “Yesterday…” will be a hit for Blue Note, that a lot of people who don’t really like jazz will buy it and that it will slip into our collective awareness in the same way Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” did a decade or so back. That may mean you’ll hear it too often when you’re out to eat or on Pandora or whatever, and I suppose the familiarity is to be regretted. On the other hand, it’s hard to have too much twilight and stillness and blues.