José James | Lean On Me

by Jeff Becker

Bill Withers has been a lasting figure in the music industry, his well-crafted tunes have resonated for multiple generations of music lovers.  In celebration of his 80th birthday, singer José James honors the great Bill Withers with Lean On Me, featuring twelve of Withers most well-lauded hits.  Produced by Blue Note president Don Was and recorded in Capitol’s legendary Studio B with some of the busiest players in today’s jazz: Pino Palladino (bass), Kris Bowers (keys), Brad Allen Williams (guitar), and Nate Smith (drums), along with special guests including vocalist Lalah Hathaway, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and trumpeter Takuya Kuroda.

Of course, one can’t help but go straight to “Ain’t No Sunshine” still one of the most played, performed and recorded of Wither’s tunes to date. James approaches the tune from a respectful place, taken at a bit of a faster click than the original, his soulfulness still resonates. Smith approaches the beat with a straight stick, giving the tune a driving beat with quick embellishments here and there for interest.  Bowers approaches this tune with a Rhodes sound giving it more of a R&B vibe, which fits the tune and lends to the respectful arrangement that sticks close to the original Withers performance.  The old, what is not broke don’t fix it, certainly applies here.

Another treat is “Lovely Day,” featuring the soulful Lalah Hathaway.  A perfect pairing for James, both artists have that crossover appeal and soulfulness that resonates for this tune originally featured on Withers album Menagerie in 1977. The tune has an easy-going vibe and both vocalists add their artistic flavoring to make it their own rendition, while not overpowering the track.

“Use Me,” cannot be ignored, James is inspired on this track, the tune originally was featured on Withers Still Bill album in 1972, and James is out front and center.  Strickland takes an inspired, though short solo that spikes the tune.  I was glad to still hear the clave beat incorporated that James Gadson cemented on the original version.

Sometimes tribute albums can fall short, and when covering an artist like Withers who has left such an indelible mark on the music industry as a whole, it could have many pitfalls.  Lean on Me, I felt, was not meant to be compared to Withers, as that would be overall difficult to compare such iconic performances. What I did find was an enjoyable set of music, put forth by a generation of superb music makers of today, digging the mode of the 70s lasting songwriting, and putting it forth for this generation to dig.  Worth the price of admission, certainly, and hopefully also a gateway for this generation to explore further the greatness in Withers songwriting.

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