Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959), one of the most influential vocalists in American history. Her distinctive phrasing, facility with lyrics and tempo, and passionate style were an inspiration to a generation of stellar performers including Frank Sinatra, Abbey Lincoln and Tony Bennett. But her reach stretches well beyond jazz, and it is not unusual to find vocalists in other genres—soul singer Luther Vandross, for instance—who were affected and inspired by Holiday’s approach.
“Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday” (Blue Note), by vocalist José James, was released recently with the centennial in mind. It isn’t an unqualified success, but it is a revealing look at how trends in jazz, especially the approach to storied repertoire, have changed in the past few decades.
The recording is Mr. James’s sixth release, and the 37-year-old has taken a circuitous route to this moment. He was born in Minneapolis and grew up there as well as in Duluth, Minn., and in Seattle. Though he lacked formal training in music until he was well into his 20s, he developed a musician’s obsessive interest in it. As a teenager, he bought the 18-disc “Complete Nat King Cole Capitol Recordings” (Mosaic) and listened to it for weeks. He also wrote a vocalese accompaniment to saxophonist John Coltrane’s solo on “Equinox” and showed it to professional musicians on the Minneapolis scene.
In 2004, Mr. James competed in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, where he was the only contestant who had not been to music school. Yet he wowed judges with a faithful rendition of the classic “Every Day I Have the Blues.” He then spent a year studying music at The New School but lacked the resources to complete his degree. In London, thanks to a jazz vocal competition that he didn’t win, Mr. James connected with Gilles Peterson, a noted DJ and producer; in 2008, he released his debut recording, “The Dreamer,” on Brownswood, Mr. Petersen’s label.
He recorded another disc, “Blackmagic,” for that London-based label, then did a recording of standards, “For All We Know,” with pianist Jef Neve (Impulse!) before signing in 2012 with Blue Note, where he has maintained a vigorous recording schedule. His “No Beginning No End” (2013) was an R&B recording in the D’Angelo and Erykah Badu vein. Last year, he released “While You Were Sleeping,” an album with elements of trip hop and experimental rock. Mr. James was a big fan of indie rock and hip hop in the early ’90s, but he has always called Holiday his “musical mother,” and on his earlier recordings he deploys inflections and techniques reminiscent of her style.
Mr. James possesses a lithe, gorgeous baritone, and “Yesterday I Had the Blues” showcases it nicely. But the range and ease of his backing musicians—the all-star trio of pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland—keep making him sound slightly stiff by comparison. Their version of “Good Morning Heartache” suffers from an overdose of restraint. On the other hand, when they loosen up a little, as they do on “Fine and Mellow,” the results are superb. So is the delicate beginning of “Body and Soul,” where Mr. James is accompanied only by Mr. Moran. And the pianist’s elegant solo on “I Thought About You” steals the spotlight.
In the recording’s best moments, Mr. James subtly responds to the play of the members of the trio—a trademark of Ms. Holiday’s singing. Too often, however, the album’s four great musicians slow down so much that the result is like a high-performance sports car stuck in a perpetual school zone.
In discussing music, Mr. James enthusiastically cross-references a variety of influences. In a 2013 interview with the New York Times, for example, he said that he thought Ms. Holiday’s work in the ’50s was the template for Ms. Badu’s 2000 recording “Mama’s Gun” (Motown). In performance, however, he compartmentalizes, and as a result this recording sounds a tad anachronistic. This kind of fealty to the source material was all the rage in the ’90s and the first years of the current century. Since then, however, performers like Mr. Moran, Cassandra Wilson, Bob Belden, Steven Bernstein and the group Ideal Bread have taken historically vital repertoire and put their own unique spin on the music. Mr. James has tapped into a wealth of influences; it would be great to hear him synthesize them.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.