José James & Jef Neve — For All We Know (Impulse, 2010)
If you've been following the career of vocalist José James — and you should — you've probably been waiting for him to cut a record like this one — a simple, straight-forward collection of jazz standards.
To date, James has brought his rich baritone to a handful of albums (solo projects and works by Nicola Conte, Timo Lassy, Soil & Pimp Sessions, etc.) where the emphasis has been on new compositions in contemporary styles (r'n'b, soul, hip-hop and jazz). By exploring such material, James has demonstrated impressive range, but it has also begged the question: Can J.J. deliver the goods on a classic material, too?
The short answer is yes-maybe. Working alongside Belgian up-and-comer pianist Jef Neve, who's sensitivity as an accompanist is deeply felt, James brings a relaxed (maybe too relaxed) approach to standards such as Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” George and Ira Gershwins’ “Embraceable You,” and Duke Ellington’s “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You.” On one hand, the songs and the intimate instrumental setting are well served by James' quiet, romantic style, but on the other hand he can sound a little tentative and self-conscious about phrasing, like he's holding back to avoid making mistakes. Likewise, one senses that Neve is holding back on his keyboard virtuosity to compensate for James' relaxed vocal style.
So, while the album doesn't definitely prove James' capability with Great American Songbook, it suggests enormous potential. It would be exciting to hear him (and Neve) cover similar material with a larger group. Let's hope they do.