When Gilles Peterson's Brownswood imprint released American vocalist and composer José James' debut album Dreamer, the effect in club culture and throughout the jazz communities in New York, Japan, and Europe was immediate. Jazz Times selected it as one of its albums of the year in 2008. James' voice echoed the social consciousness of Gil Scott-Heron, the hipness of Babs Gonzales, the sophistication of Jon Lucien, and the soulfulness of Terry Callier, whether he was improvising over a piano trio playing Mingus, or singing his own lyrics over electronic beats. On Blackmagic, James forges deeper into 21st century soul and experimental territory, without giving up his jazz chops. Enlisting Flying Lotus and a number of other producers, this is a late-night, groove record that allows hip-hop, club jazz, and lithe funk to accent -- rather than drive -- his smooth, sultry baritone. His approach, while more innovative this time out, feels no less organic. The set kicks off with “Code,” produced by Flying Lotus. A Rhodes piano, congas, languid bassline, the sounds of scratchy vinyl, backing vocals, and ambient sounds underscore James’ vocal; phrasing only a few words at a time as hip hop beats and skittering loops permeate his lines. Likewise, the ethereal title track shivers with sensual invitation via a mercurial groove created by Flying Lotus with guitars, elegantly caressed snares, and James answering his more declamatory sung lines with crooning improvisations. “Lay You Down” is a neo-soul babymaker, with a handclap à la D’Angelo as the basis for its pulse. James’ airy delivery is the melodic instrument as horns, Rhodes, bass, and drums fill the space dimensionally. “Warrior” is an uptempo groover using Benga's “Emotions” dubstep rhythm as its ground before kit drum breaks, basses, and the woven textures of acoustic and electric pianos push from underneath; James chants/sings in call and response with himself. “Detroit Loveletter” is a telltale Moodymann production. It’s an utterly seductive soul-by-cut-groove ballad, with a funky shimmering bassline, dreamy backing vocals, and wistful keys; James' vocal hovers above this mix. The grain in his voice beckons the listener to pleasures unnamed but unmistakable. As a whole, Blackmagic is skillfully sequenced and intelligently arranged to avoid neo-soul or jazz clichés -- there isn’t a hint of artifice on it. This is 21st century jazzed-out soul at its best; and in the spirit of both traditions, it creates something new from traces of the familiar.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek