José James has traveled the world touring his music, recently performing a project called Gershwin Reimagined with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia. His success has earned him worldwide recognition, but he has a soft spot for his original home state of Minnesota.
“I’m literally halfway across the world talking to you, but I really perform in Minneapolis,” James said. “It’s really nice to get that gig and get that recognition and get that hometown love.”
James was chosen to be a headliner for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, a gig James remembers his own dad playing as a saxophonist with Ipso Facto.
“It’s really full circle for me,” James said. “That’s sort of how I got into music, seeing my dad perform at that festival. It’s kind of crazy.”
James’s most recent album is a Bill Withers tribute: Lean on Me was released last year on Blue Note Records. In St. Paul, the star will be playing Withers songs along with some originals for a “non-stop music party.”
The Withers tribute had its genesis when James added a few songs to his set list.
“I started performing — just live, I never recorded it — like a little medley of ‘Who is He and What is He to You,’ ‘Grandma’s Hands,’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,'” James said. “And people just f—ing would lose their minds every time I would do it.”
After his shows, people would always express their wishes for a recorded album of the cover songs, a request James appreciated — but he wanted to tread lightly.
“I think we’ve all heard of tribute albums that are really terrible,” James said. “And it kind of hurts twice because it makes you sort of not like the artist who did the tribute, and then it makes you kind of mad because you love the tribute artist.”
Talking with people around the world, James realized that many thought Withers was already dead. James did some additional research and found that the question, “When did Bill Withers die,” was one of the top Google searches about Withers.
In fact, the 80-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee simply retired early, having stepped away from recording and live performance as of the mid-1980s.
James ultimately had the opportunity to meet with Withers and his family, getting a nod of approval to move forward with the tribute project. “It’s just kind of an interesting thing to bring his music to a live audience again, and people just can’t get enough of it,” James said.
Festivalgoers will be able to witness the result of James’ Withers odyssey, but he says he’s ready to get back to putting out his own songs.
“I think after two years some of my fans are like we get it, you love Bill Withers, but we love you, you know?” James joked. “So I’m trying to sort of get back into putting out my [own] stuff. I did a tribute to Billie Holiday on Blue Note, I did a live tribute to John Coltrane, I didn’t make an album, but it’s easy to kind of get stuck, like you’re the tribute guy.”
Everyone is invited to the party that is the 21st annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival, happening June 20-22 in Lowertown St. Paul with co-headliners James Carter; Nnenna Freelon; Aurora Nealand with Tom McDermott; and others.
James hopes the audience will be able to keep up with the performers and appreciate the full experience. “That’s why I like jazz,” he said. “There’s no way for it to work unless you’re plugged in.”