José James

Released March 31, 2015

DownBeat Five-Star Review



To commemorate what would have been Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday, Jose James, a decorated young jazz vocalist in his own time, has released Yesterday I Had the Blues, a tribute to the singer he has described as his “musical mother.” The smooth set of songs written or popularized by Holiday, was produced by music legend (and Blue Note Records president) Don Was and features a top-tier backing trio composed of pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Eric Harland.

Using language that has been similarly used to describe his own rich and expressive baritone, James writes of his earliest memory hearing Holiday’s music: “Billie’s voice floated through our house – grand, warm, intimate, and wholly unique.” He continues, “I rediscovered Billie during a difficult period of my teenage years. As much as I loved Nirvana, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, her music spoke to me on a much deeper level. Her work was mastery – of pain, of trauma, of faith in music and the power of transformation. I had found my teacher. Billie Holiday made me want to be a jazz singer and set me on the path that I’m walking today.”

We talked more with James about the project, working with Don Was, and the untouchable legacy of Billie Holiday.

What is Billie Holiday’s legacy? What makes her one of the greatest jazz artists of all time?

Billie Holiday is without question one of the greatest vocalists of all time. She has the rare quality of bringing you into a lyric, into an emotion. When you listen to Billie Holiday, regardless of your culture or background, you feel like you know her somehow. Besides that, she’s a musical genius who internalized the harmonic and melodic inventions of the great tenor t​itans of her time ​(​Lester Young, Ben Webster, etc.)​ and​ turned it into the best jazz phrasing the world ha​s​ ever known.

What does her music mean to you on a personal level?

On a personal level, listening to Billie Holiday taught me everything I know about singing jazz. And if that’s not the best compliment I can give, I don’t know what is.

Any songs in particular?​

To me, the essence of Billie Holiday comes down to two songs: “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless The Child.” “Strange Fruit” ​represents her as a fearless activist for change. “God Bless The Child” represents her independence, willpower and artistic vision. These two songs together get to the core of Billie Holiday for me.

What did you hope to accomplish with this project?

My hope in doing this project is to shed light on Billie Holiday as an incredible songwriter, bandleader and fearless feminist and radical. She has been cast as a tragic figure too often. I think to this day she’s still underrated as a jazz innovator. It says a lot to me that Frank Sinatra cited her as one of his primary influences.

Any special moments during the process?

​The entire process has been one long special moment. We recorded the album in four hours, with the exception of “Strange Fruit,” which Don and I recorded alone the next day. There was a genuine magic in the room and everyone felt it. This was truly one of those sessions that happens once in a lifetime.

What is it like working with Don Was?

​Don Was is a legend, plain and simple. When he walks into the room everyone comes with their A game. As an artist, I felt fully supported by everything Don brought to the table. He puts everyone in the room at ease as a musician, producer, and president of Blue Note Records.

You’ve already been touring behind this album. What is it like performing such loaded material that is so associated with her?

Honestly, it’s very difficult singing a song like “Strange Fruit”​ ​in​ light of recent police brutality ​against black people across the country. It’s especially​ daunting knowing that, in essence, very little has changed since Billie Holiday ​originally recorded the song. ​On the lighter side, it’s fantastic to sing some of the more playful and romantic songs she was known for, such as “Lover Man” or “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” and see how it connects with a contemporary audience. These songs are called standards for a reason.

If you could meet Billie Holiday today, what would you say to her?

Where are you singing next?

Ryan Pinkard (Tidal)

Track Listing:

1. Good Morning Heartache (Ervin Drake / Dan Fisher / Irene Higginbotham) 5:55

2. Body and Soul (Frank Eyton / Johnny Green / Edward Heyman / Robert Sour) 5:58

3. Fine and Mellow (Billie Holiday) 5:12

4. I Thought About You (James Van Heusen / Johnny Mercer) 5:27

5. What a Little Moonlight Can Do (Harry Woods) 5:40

6. Tenderly (Walter Gross / Jack Lawrence) 3:26

7. Lover Man (Jimmy Davis / Roger Ramirez / James Sherman) 6:43

8. God Bless the Child (Billie Holiday / Arthur Herzog, Jr.) 6:20

9. Strange Fruit (Lewis Allan) 4:48


José James: vocals

Jason Moran: piano, Fender Rhodes

John Patitucci: bass

Eric Harland: drums

Recorded August 23 – 24, 2014, at Sear Sound, NYC

Produced by Don Was

Mastering: Mark Wilder

Mixing: Chris Allen

Art Direction: Yusuke Yoshinaga

Photography (cover): Janette Beckman

Executive Producer: Yoshihisa Saito


The 100th anniversaries of the births of historical jazz artists inevitably breed tribute recordings— most of which are predictable and pedestrian. Marking the centennial of Billie Holiday, José James avoids the usual pitfalls through effective gender reversal and the skillful blending of his husky voice with a superb rhythm section. Perhaps the greatest triumph in this flawless recording is the way James succeeds in transcending the lyrics—achieving that rare goal of transforming the human voice into a horn—yet still making every word count. He accomplishes another unusual feat, as well: While male singers have long struggled with the issue of vulnerability, on “Body And Soul” and “Tenderly” James lays himself bare, and does it artfully. Juxtaposed against the lusty, full-voiced power of “Fine And Mellow,” this creates a wide dynamic arc and a complete character study of a man embodying the range of human emotions related to love, loss and desire. In that regard, James succeeds beyond creating great music; he truly captures the essence of Holiday’s spirit. Stepping outside of Holiday’s body of work devoted to relationships, James caps the recording with a stunning rendition of “Strange Fruit,” dominated by a mournful blend of voices and slow handclaps, that summons up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” as much as it does Holiday. As strong as James’ performance is, it is matched at every step by the exceptionally well-balanced trio of Jason Moran, John Patitucci and Eric Harland. The interaction between Moran and Harland—longtime bandmates in Charles Lloyd’s quartet—is particularly effective, and Patitucci’s gorgeous tone is an ideal match for James’.

James Hale (DownBeat)