Title: Lean On Me
Artist: José James
Label: Blue Note
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: September 28, 2018
Minnesota-born jazz singer José James is known for combining aspects of jazz, soul, and hip hop to create his own unique style, which has often been described as a modern Gil Scott-Heron. Over the course of his career, James has released six full-length albums that range in style from typical jazz standards to all original works. Now, with his latest album Lean On Me, James pays homage to one of the most respected artists ever, Bill Withers.
When explaining what led him to take on a project to recreate such iconic music, James explained that he has always had a high level of respect for Bill Withers, and believes his songs “have the strength to be interpreted.” The beauty of James’ approach is that while he gives the songs his own personal touch, adding different qualities not found in the original recordings, he was still able to maintain the integrity of Withers’ compositions. James states: “I didn’t want to put hip-hop beats under his music or deconstruct it with 10-minute bebop solos. There was only one right move here: show up with a killer band, run the tape, capture the vibe.” This is made clear on the very first track, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” arguably the most famous song Withers ever recorded.
James’ rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” begins with the famous guitar line before the rest of the band enters. Keeping it very relaxed, they are able to capture the ‘70s vibe through the simplistic bass line, driving funk groove and the unique texture created by congas, as well as the addition of electric piano played by Kris Owens. Owens accompanies James with elegant piano voicings that seem to be in direct response to the message of the song before he is given the opportunity to solo. The album continues through other renowned Withers classics such as “Just the Two of Us,” “Grandmas Hands,” “Lean On Me” and “Use Me,” as well as “Lovely Day” which features Lalah Hathaway.
James set out to create this album while still shaken from the recent loss of several of his musical heroes. His goal was to celebrate Withers as a living legend and through Lean On Me he certainly succeeds, reminding us just how much Bill Withers and his music have touched the world.
Reviewed by Jared Griffin