Jose James brings life into Blue Note debut

Minneapolis has been known as a locus of innovative funk, R&B, and soul music since the late 1970s, when José James was born. Known up till now as a jazz singer, James has broadened his musical ambitions with “No Beginning No End,” an album that exemplifies artistic unity even as it presents smoldering R&B songs, extended, melodic jazz pieces and crystal-clear neo-soul jams. What holds the album together more than anything else is a unified mood, a kind of subdued passion made possible by superb singing, songwriting and playing on the part of James and his collaborators.

Those collaborators include Robert Glasper, a skilled pianist who helmed a similarly wide-ranging project, “Black Radio,” which was released last year. Listening to them back to back, one might think they were separated at conception. Where “Black Radio” sought to explore the blurring boundaries between different strands of African American music and featured a broad ensemble of guest stars, “No Beginning No End” is a more unified endeavor that, despite its eclectic mix of styles, retains James as a singular personality at its core.

The album, which was released on legendary jazz label Blue Note, begins with a clatter of Chris Dave’s drums that eventually congeals into a settled pattern, smoky and cool. “It’s All Over Your Body,” the song that builds up from this percussive base, sets the vibe. James sings in a clear, confident voice and tends to favour the smooth and simmering over-flashy dramatics. This is largely true of the instrumental arrangements as well: Glasper’s piano, the funk horn section and bassist Pino Palladino keep the rhythms tight and the volume down, letting the listener soak into the thick atmosphere of the track’s layered production. Even more rhythmically involved tracks like the North African inspired “Sword + Gun” emphasize restraint and an easygoing feel that lets James’ romantic, sensual songwriting shine.

Near the end of the album, “No Beginning No End” lays down its definitive song. At over eight minutes long, “Bird of Space” winds through spacious textures defined by an infectious bass line. Cool but not cold, it luxuriates in its acoustic guitars, soft electric piano and brushed drums. “See the silence of the moment/All alone inside/You belong to me,” James croons, and here the lyrics and musical arrangement come into their own in a stronger way than in any other song on the record. James is able to evoke feelings of closeness and passionate pining with few elements and little variation, showing how completely he has mastered the mood he cloaked us in eight tracks earlier.

With tempos this slow and temperaments this reserved, one would expect a much lower intensity level from James’ Blue Note debut. It is this album’s remarkable achievement, though, that songs that could be lethargic or merely sad are brought to life through skillful pacing, involving songwriting and agile playing from the band. Twisting and morphing from one genre to another, the songs sound different enough to be readily distinguished from each other but obviously exist in the same head space. For those with an hour to spare and a desire to bask in slow-burning but passionate music, “No Beginning No End” works bluesy wonders.