After three days away from the festival, on tour with Vox Sambou, a long day of running around Jazz Fest in the sun and humidity culminated in two fantastic shows. Vocalist and songwriter José James graced the stage of Club Soda in a 7 pm set, his first time in town since he stepped on my feet in the all-too-small setting of Piano Rouge. The first set was dominated by tunes from the new album, While You Were Sleeping. Influenced by the sonic landscapes of dubstep and indie rock, pianist Kris Bowers spent most of his time on his two Nords; bassist Solomon Dorsey alternated between electric and a Moog synth; and guitarist Brad Williams unleashed a fury of fuzz. Live, the new tunes seem like a little less of a radical departure from James’ previous work – the new record struck me as a very stark difference from his past albums. Certainly, James spends more time belting at the top of his register than indulging his velvet baritone. The first set ended with one of James’ vintage showpieces – his re-envisioning of Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People” mashed up with the original sample, Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.” Bowers stretched out on Rhodes and Williams took a star turn on guitar. James made a point of mentioning that Williams hails from Memphis, and certainly the long guitar tradition of Stax and Hi records is imprinted on his musical DNA. The rest of the band was completed by London groove drummer nonpareil Richard Spaven, and Talia Billig on backing vocals. James has long surrounded himself with strong female collaborators, and Billig is a worthy addition to that list. Too bad much of her backing vocals got lost in the mix – she was often low in her register and hard to distinguish from James and Dorsey.
The second set was exactly what people expect from José James, at possibly the strongest that I’ve seen him – most of the tunes were drawn from Blackmagic and No Beginning No End, and reflected that seamless marriage of jazz, R&B and hip-hop that shot him to great acclaim. It’s a little strange to hear “Trouble” without Takuya Kuroda’s trumpet, but impressive solos from Bowers and Williams more than made up for it. After the moody cover of fellow Brooklyn singer-songwriter Becca Stevens’ “Dragon,” someone requested “some Moodymann shit” which James and Bowers heard as “your booty ain’t shit.” “I can’t help you with that, bro,” responded James, as he launched into Kurt Cobain mode with “Anywhere U Go.” The evening closed with the slow gospel groove of “Do You Feel,” with both Bowers and Williams going to church on it and a phenomenal bass and vocal solo from Dorsey.
I capped off the night with Dr. Lonnie Smith and his new octet at Gesu. Packed to capacity, altoist Ian Hendrickson-Smith exhorted us to “scream and clap” along with the Doctor. The rhythm section of Smith, guitarist Ed Cherry and drummer Johnathan Blake was a steady grooving bus. Blake is a powerhouse of a drummer, especially on the shuffle “Keep Her Talking.” The horns included the aforementioned Hendrickson-Smith, John Ellis on tenor, Alan Ferber on trombone and Andy Gravish on trumpet. Baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall is my discovery of the festival so far. On the boogaloo of “Slow High,” Marshall picked up exactly where Ellis left him, both exhibiting soulful deliberation. Marshall worked his way up to the high F & G above the treble clef with ultimate control – I have never heard a baritonist with that kind of register. Alan Ferber is an equally developed and patient soloist, and Hendrickson-Smith has that edgy and keening alto sound of the late-60s greats. Only Gravish felt a little out of place to me soloistically, with a brash and brassy tone and a more hyper sense of line.
The centerpiece of the set was a tune called “Turning Point.” Opening with a contemporary chamber music introduction performed by Smith on really well-sampled orchestral sounds, it unleashed into a roaring freebop tune that could be described as Mulatu-meets-Mingus. Smith’s soloing is maybe less precise and fluid than it used to be, but as a bandleader and rhythm section staple he was keeping the pocket all night. Sometimes he would reach over and play a percussion pad while kicking bass pedals. Long live the Doctor!