As 2018 marks the 80th birthday of legendary singer-songwriter Bill Withers, critically acclaimed contemporary jazz and R&B musician José James has announced a national tribute tour vetted by Withers himself. The two-year world tour playing the Withers songbook kicks off on January 11th in New York and is backed by an incredible band handpicked for the job (Sullivan Fortner on keys, Brad Allen Williams on guitar, Ben Williams on bass, and Nate Smith on drums).
To give fans a taste of what’s to come, James shares two new live videos alongside a conversation with Billboard about the project and how it came to be. Watch his renditions of “Hope She’ll Be Happier” and “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh.”
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.
We last heard from José 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?"
In addition to his Lean On Me tour dates, James will also perform a 4-night run of shows at Blue Note Jazz Club in NYC in early February in celebration of the 10th anniversary of his landmark debut album, The Dreamer. See below for a full date listing.