When José James played at Ronnie Scott’s for the EFG London Jazz Festival this time last year, he kicked up a welcome ruckus when his Billie Holliday tribute diverted into heavy hip hop beats and his trademark self-remixing scratch sounds. This time round the fans lapped up his full canon of reinvention: hip hop through to rap, a jubilant bounce amongst a disco-fuelled Prince tribute, and finishing in slow groove R’n’B home territory.
James swaggered on to stage in a black lace jacket with exposed bare chest beneath, accompanied by one-man soul orchestra Nate Smith at the drums. There were expectant glances from the audience to the wings of the stage, but disappointment set in when Smith pressed play on the backing track. The preview of tracks from forthcoming album Love in a Time of Madness soon quelled any concerns, but questions remained as to where the rest of the band had disappeared to. An isolated shard of light illuminated Smith during an extended drum solo that proved he was more than able to compensate for absentees.
The dynamism lifted a gear higher when Smith and James digressed into an improvisation on Park Bench People, rapping and riffing with extended repetitions to explosive effect. Lurking references to Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay reminded us that his jazz roots remain as relevant as ever.
It was for the closing tracks that long-time collaborator bassist Solomon Dorsey augmented the pair to a trio. The glee on James’ face as they duetted on Come to my Door spread throughout the room, prompting couples to swoon to the unabashed romance of the self-titled Ladies’ Man. José James’ vocals are at their best stretching around the soul of a Bill Withers cover but, to his credit and our benefit, he refuses to let his versatility be confined.