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.
Robert Glasper and his band are performing at NYC’s Blue Note for a month’s residency. The guest performer for October 11-14 was Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. For Saturday night’s performance, some of Yasiin’s lines were familiar. Some were not. His delivery, however, struck me as wholly original. He seemed to sculpt rhymes and rhythms in the air, where they lasted all night. He was emphatic and ecstatic, but more than that, he was intent and serious while creating art in real time. Yassin Bey has perfected his rapport with the energy of a spirit at large.
(An original, outside spirit filling one with artistic energy was once what inspired meant. But its overuse, often regarding not much, has led it into the awesome muck. Possibly, not too distant from Mark Zuckerberg’s empathy.)
During a pause, the young man next to me asked, was this hip-hop? He wondered, too, why change your name when Mos Def is such a great name? Mos Def is a great stage name, but it conveys none of real-life seriousness of an artist who dares to take his work seriously. Of course, all art depends on being playful. Many people play all their lives and are undeniably artistic. But taking the risky, sky-leap into serious art occurs to very few people, and even then, it demands nerve, commitment, and luck.
At one point, he started “Ms. Fat Booty,” and Anderson.Paak joined him onstage. (A surprise–AP had been sitting in the row below me, among the “cheap seats.” The younger rapper, his voice higher, his intention pure fun, blended, perfectly with Yasiin’s lofty joy.
The show ended with Yasiin’s ecstatic litany starting in contradiction, moving through repetition, in which a word or emphasis is altered in loop until what you hear is something like a koan, or no, original truths. (That’s what I thought, anyway.)
Yassin Bey’s raspy voice and supreme invocations offered everyone present the “Sun, Moon, and Stars.”
My son composed the music for this on an old synthesizer he bought from Ebay. My husband made the video after we had been visiting our daughter in Oakland, CA. Usually, I jump rope inside the apartment because nothing’s below us but mail slots. But I needed to calm down before the long flight from San Francisco to LaGuardia.