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First Listen: Jose James, 'No Beginning No End'

NPR icon by Ann Powers
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In Harlem back at the dawn of the last century, there was a dance called the Messaround. To do it, you'd bounce on your toes, shimmy your middle and keep your shoulders as still as possible. It was more a show of dexterity than a choreographed routine. It was sexy but playful, hard to define, yet easy to blend with other dances. The Messaround made the hybrid soul of popular music into a physical thing; it showed how discipline and release, fun and serious skill, complement each other.

The vocalist José James makes utterly contemporary music more grounded in neo-soul and hip-hop's Native Tongues movement than in the dance crazes of the 1920s. Yet in his elegant, cerebral, seductive way, James is definitely doing the Messaround. His fourth album skirts categories with ease, fitting in with current R&B innovators like Frank Ocean or Miguel, yet maintaining a strong awareness of a lineage that stretches from Ray Charles to Marvin Gaye to Lou Rawls to Maxwell.

Eclecticism is, in some ways, the very subject of No Beginning No End (out Jan. 22). James strategized his approach after conversations with Leon Ware, the Motown-era songwriter who expanded soul's palette working with Gaye, Quincy Jones, Minnie Riperton and many others. Pino Palladino, the Welsh bassist who's worked with classic rockers like The Who and John Mayer and jazz stars like Roy Hargrove, is a co-producer. Robert Glasper and Kris Bowers, both trailblazing young jazz genre-busters, make key appearances. Interacting with this top-notch crew, James goes beyond what's expected from an "alternative R&B" singer who splits the difference between Bill Withers and D'Angelo. James finds his own voice by paying deep attention to technique without compromising passion — sultry one moment, commanding the next, he holistically heals the rift between radio-friendly songcraft and virtuoso flair.

Surrounded by these outstanding male players, James found himself wanting more "female energy," he's said. He cultivates that yin in remarkable duets with the New York singer-songwriter Emily King and the Moroccan chanteuse Hindi Zahra. These rich exchanges form the heart of the album, and again show James' eagerness to go beyond his comfort zone: "Sword & Gun" takes on the North African flavor of Zahra's music, while in "Heaven on the Ground," James explores King's instrument — the guitar — giving the duet multidimensional intimacy.

A few years ago, the scrupulously eclectic James seemed like something of an outlier, too sensually inclined for straight jazz and too contemplative for R&B or pop. Now, though, he's a young lion within a growing community that includes Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Janelle Monáe, Gregory Porter, and Lianne La Havas. His slow and sultry Messaround makes sense for this moment. Won't you let him have this dance?

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