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Lean on Me: José James Celebrates Bill Withers

About this Artist

We never need an excuse to celebrate rare genius, but on occasion the universe conspires to remind us how important it is to appreciate the tremendous creative minds that still walk among us. At least, that's how it felt to Blue Note recording artist José James when it dawned on him that 2018 will mark the 80th birthday of a True American Great, singer-songwriter Bill Withers. "I was so depressed losing Sharon Jones, Prince, David Bowie.. legend after legend after legend," says James. "I realized this is an opportunity to hold onto what we have." An ace genre-blurring vocalist and bandleader, James has won acclaim for his deeply felt tributes to Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. But this is his most ambitious idea yet: a two-year world tour playing the Withers songbook backed by an incredible band handpicked for the job, kicked off with a live EP, accompanied by a video series, and a culminating in an LP release. Best of all the project comes vetted by mighty Withers himself, who frankly seems tickled by the whole thing.

We last heard from James in early 2017 when he released his seventh album, Love in a Time of Madness, a contemporary R&B set that marked his turn away from the solipsism of jazz and, as he said back then, "toward music that's made for other people to enjoy." He wrote love songs as a salve for all the negativity in the air, but things have gotten a lot worse since. Which is another reason why he found himself considering the power of Withers classics like "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," and "Lovely Day." "His songs reflect a love for community and unification," says James. "His music respects elders, values mentors, and explores male vulnerability. What better way to bring light to the world while challenging the racist, fascist, and sexist status quo?" And to help him do that, he assembled a devilishly equipped crew: Sullivan Fortner on keys, Brad Allen Williams on guitar, Ben Williams on bass, and Nate Smith on drums. While each is a star in the jazz world, James promises "one of the funkiest, most soulful bands that you will ever hear."

Dubbed Lean on Me: José James Celebrates Bill Withers, the tour has humble roots. While on the road these past few years, James found his live set slowly changing to make room for more Withers. First it was "Sunshine," coming out of a vamp following his neo-soul original, "Trouble." But soon, "Sunshine" grew to include "Grandma's Hands," then "Use Me," then "Just the Two of Us," and before long, the emotional peak of the show had become a 20 to 30-minute medley of Withers music that "people would just go crazy for," says James. "It's the power of performance: you can make those songs come alive again and people feel it in a way they can't on a record." And he has a point: with Withers retired from the touring life for over a quarter-century, his work while monumental is, to new ears, part of history. But experienced in the light of music's inherent fluidity, it's not difficult to see how that work is every bit as meaningful as that of Wonder, Simon, McCartney, or Dylan. Without Withers, would there be a John Legend, Alicia Keys, or D'Angelo?

Forming the band was easy—the man's name is a golden key. And when Blue Note boss Don Was heard what James was up to, he made him promise to make the project his next album as well. But deciding which songs to include, from nine Withers albums, was tough. James was thrilled when he chipped the list down to 60. Ultimately he decided on 14 that represent a balance of "bangers"— indelible Top 10 hits—and rare grooves, deep cuts, and stone ballads showcasing Withers' songwriting. But he wasn't sure he nailed it, so he asked Was what he thought and, as James tells it, "Don says, 'I dunno. Let's ask Bill.'" So they set up a meet: dinner at Hollywood's storied Musso & Frank, where they sat in Sinatra's booth and powwowed about the panoply of roots music, from James Brown to John Mayer. "That was one of the highlights of my life," says James. "I learned more in that hour than I did at music school and a decade's worth of shows."

Withers was exactly who James thought he'd be after spending countless hours sleuthing for archival interviews and performances: someone who's comfortable in his own skin, unimpressed by fame's trappings, doesn't waste words and is endlessly, effortlessly cool. More surprising and humbling were the ways in which the two were similar: both value hard work—seek it out, even—and hold a deep respect for the crafts of music-making and storytelling, no doubt anchored in a blue-collar upbringing. "I grew up in Minnesota with a single mother who at one point was on welfare," recalls James. "She worked hard and instilled that in me, whether it was in my studies or getting summer gigs from the age of 14 on. I worked a lot of jobs and brought that to music too: there's value in doing something well." Withers, of course, hails from a tiny coal town, Slab Fork, WV, pop. 202. They also share a DIY spirit, and the urge to use positivity as a tool against nastiness. In all of his research, James couldn't find one bad thing Withers said about anyone.

But the greatest connection between these two is what you'll hear in the music itself. "At their heart, Bill's songs are simple," says James. "There's not a lot you should do with them in terms of trying to make them fancy. All you can add is the emotional weight of your own life. When I play 'Grandma's Hands,' I'm missing my grandmother." Which is why for the group he needed "a bunch of guys who can lay down that groove and stay on it all night." That's not always an easy space for seasoned jazz musicians to occupy, but at their first gig in June after a lone rehearsal, they fell right in. For James, that coalescence was nothing short of spiritual—the birth of a truly great band. For their next stop, the quintet recorded a video session at the Schott NYC factory, birthplace of the iconic American leather jacket, in homage to the industrial work Withers once did. The footage is pure magic. One could argue the place has something to do with it, but in truth it's those songs themselves, once again living and breathing in front of our very eyes.