Last night we were lucky enough to see Jose James at The Highline Nightclub, doing songs from his album, Lean On Me, a tribute to Bill Withers. As always, Jose James performing live was thrilling. His band was a group of killer musicians–didn’t get every name but the drummer was Nate Smith. James said when he first started talking about a Bill Withers’ tribute album, on which he’s been working long enough to grow a significant Afro, he narrowed it down to sixty songs—he couldn’t do it without including all of them. He then met Bill Withers. They talked for three hours, after which James made the album “Lean on Me,” which includes ten songs. The tour is going on now.
After performing “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Hello Like Before,” and “Use Me,” everyone left the stage except the drummer, Nate Smith, who easily enrapt the audience. James and crew returned, James now wearing a pale blue suit circa 1972 that looked terrific on him. A trained jazz singer who incorporates hip-hop, R&B, gospel, and funk, he said people have been asking him, “Why Bill Withers? Why now?”
Several answers to that question, one of which is that he considers Bill Withers the greatest living songwriter. But the answer he offered as his go-to response was that “Lean on Me,” was an uplifting anthem on the level of “We Shall Overcome” (or “Lift Every Voice and Sing”.) Bill Withers grew up in West Virginia during the Jim Crow era.
The songs opening lyrics are:
Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow
and grow even more compassionate from there. I’ve been listening to this album for a few weeks now. James’s live performance of “Grandma’s Hands” last night, I hope, will stay with me forever.
Most of “Lean on Me” album isn’t on YouTube. To this day, scarce bits of James’s live shows are all that’s offered of his lyrics for John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” “Central Park West,” and “Resolution.” Limited showings, too, of his Billie Holiday tribute, which is both faithful to the original and stunning in interpretation.