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Versatile jazz vocalist José James has sung a number of covers in his day, including concert-length tributes to Billie Holliday and John Coltrane. But none challenged him like his latest venture: interpreting the music of R&B-soul-jazz legend Bill Withers.
In 2018, after five years of performing selections from the Withers canon onstage, James — with an expert assist from Blue Note Records boss Don Was — carefully selected 12 tracks to record. “Don helped a lot, because I was being really obsessive about it and wanting to represent all the different areas of his life,” James says. “And Don very nicely said, ‘You don’t have to be a musicologist about it.’ Which is really funny — the president of the record company telling his artist to chill out and relax a bit.”
The resulting album, a jazz-funk-soul-R&B delight called “Lean on Me: José James Celebrates Bill Withers,” spawned a tour of the same name that stops March 15 at Symphony Center. (Also on the SCP Jazz bill is The Bad Plus with Kurt Rosenwinkel.)
“I was sort of resistant,” James says from the road. “People ask me to do tributes to all kinds of people, and I usually want to do my own music.”
When he researched Withers, James realized “what an incredible, transformative thing music must have been for him,” growing up impoverished amid severe racism in Slab Fork, W.Va.
He also learned that while this longtime musical hero of his was about to turn 80, lots of people seemed to think he was dead. After all, Withers hasn’t toured in more than 35 years and has long lived a private life out of the spotlight.
“He feels like time has moved on, like everybody’s just focused on [current artists such as] Sam Smith and Kanye West and Katy Perry,” says James, 41, who met with Withers and got his enthusiastic blessing to move forward with the tribute. “He’s very aware of songwriters of today. He knows about Sia, he knows about all the kids. He’s listening to their music, ’cause he’s a songwriter, but I think he’s very clear on the fact that he had his time, he made his statement. And he’s proud of that. So he has an interesting relationship with his own music and fame and legend. He’s not walking around trying to be recognized.”
Talking with Withers face to face, James says, helped him separate the man from the myth — and consequently, feel artistically liberated to perform the multiple Grammy-winning legend’s deceptively simple, eminently listable hits along with a smattering of less well-known material for good measure.
“It’s hard to explain, but he’s not like your average person,” James says of Withers. “He’s so intelligent and funny, and you just realize by the way he talks, by the way he responds to things, that his wavelength is completely different. He’s so sharp. He reads people extremely well. And he doesn’t suffer fools. It was lucky for us that he discovered music, but he could have done anything.”
Crucial to pulling off Withers’ repertoire as deftly as James does is his stellar band, and he gives them big props. “[Drummer] James Gadson and all those guys really making it funky, making it move in a certain way — to me, that’s the magic,” James says. “Having jazz musicians who can play funk and soul is really important, because it brings [out] a certain subtlety that Bill’s music has.”
Another key factor in singing Withers’ work — particularly stuff the requires a deep dive into the emotional well — in a genuine way is life experience. For that reason, James says, it’s good he’s doing this now. Years ago, it probably wouldn’t have worked as well.
“I mean, you can’t sing about regret as a teenager.”
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.