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In the liner notes to Timeless Tales (For Changing Times), saxophonist Joshua Redman, son of avant-garde tenor saxman Dewey Redman, sought to re-define the standard, boiling all that jazz about jazz down to one element.  “There is a song,” he explained, “which inspires a story that you yourself can tell.  This song asks you how you feel.  The story leaves plenty of room for your singular imagination.  It involves you.  The song is forever.  It is timeless.  It is always with you, because (as Hammerstein and Kern so aptly put it) ‘the song is you.’”

While that sounds exactly like what holds a nation of post-neo-soul children (as well as our post-grunge brothers and pop star little sisters from other mothers) back from fully embracing our common roots, I don’t believe that was Redman’s intention because he had already established that he wasn’t some musical elitist through his collaboration with MeShell Ndegeocello on her 1993 debut release Plantation Lullabies, where he responded to her funky lyrical call on sensual grooves like “Picture Show” and the socially conscious flow of “Step Into The Projects” with a raw, sultry passion of his own.  He returned on the Plantation follow-up Peace Beyond Passion, going to church with her in search of the alternative soul of black identity. These songs weren’t standards (although Ndegeocello did cover the Bill Withers classic “Who Is He And What Is He To You” without flipping genders), but they allowed listeners to eavesdrop on an intimate dialogue and I, for one, felt like the best friend of each party, getting both sides of the story from the source.

Yet, back on Timeless Tales, Redman tried to lose himself in old favorites like “Summertime” and “Love for Sale,” but it could be argued that you (which I took him to mean “you” as in the interpreter/musician) can disappear among all the other travelers crossing this familiar terrain.  So, he also sought out the likes of Stevie Wonder (“Visions”), Joni Mitchell (“I Had a King”), Bob Dylan (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”), and the Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”).  Definitely standard bearers, each and every one, but for another generation, and even when he stepped ahead, a bit with Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” I had a hard time believing that he had found himself in that song, which left me standing alone on a road (that I have traveled for miles and miles, since the first time I snagged an already well-worn bootleg of this B-side from the 1999 glory days) feeling like I was going nowhere.

And therein lies my problem with the notion of the standard itself.  Hammerstein and Kern were right, but where Redman and most of us go wrong is in forgetting which “you” they were talking about. The musician thinks of themselves, but what about the identity and perspective of the listener?  Each of us plays DJ – composing, remaking, and remixing the soundtracks and scores of our lives, so what about the songs that speak to, and for, me?

I (and I believe we all) have been searching for the songs and performances that put me in touch with who I am.  In the introduction to Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act (the collection of essays and writings issued a decade after Invisible Man), Ellison talked about how jazz had prepared him and the young black men of his day to develop themselves “for the performance of many and diverse roles” and perform “not with mere competence but with an almost reckless verve.”  Now that’s what I’m still looking for, even as an old school listener in the ever-changing mood of today’s pop scene.

A strain of that spirit seeps through Cornel West’s introduction to his 1999 Reader collection, in which he defines being American within the context of “a fragile experiment…that yields forms of modern self-making and self-creating unprecedented in human history.”  That’s likely too heady for a discussion of contemporary pop music, but it speaks to me and my search for a musical self because it seems to acknowledge that there is no need for a standard at all anymore.  The standard is a limitation, a barrier that must be shattered, enroute to the next version of our constantly evolving selves.  So maybe now, like Springsteen, “I’m looking for a (musical) lover who will come on in and cover me.”

Who, or what (as in, what song) can cover me?   Better yet, who today can do what Al Green used to do in the early 1970s, remaking the Bee Gees (“How Can You Mend A Broken Heart”), Kris Kristofferson (“For The Good Times”), and Willie Nelson (“Funny How Time Slips Away”) in not only his image, but that of listeners like me (and I was just a kid sitting for hours in front of an old record player staring at the album jacket photos of Green’s big Afro wishing mine would halo my head the same way).  What I came to know about broken hearts and the passage of time I learned from Reverend Al Green.

As I’ve gotten older, I long to hear other seemingly disparate combinations of words and voices telling me stories about myself in ways I wouldn’t have expected.  I found it in the posthumously released tracks of Jeff Buckley, who I discovered after his tragic death thanks to Lewis Taylor’s cover of Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You.”  I traced Taylor’s jeep-friendly noir back to Buckley’s aching wail and moan and a goldmine of reconfigured tales from Nina Simone (“Lilac Wine”), Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah”), and even Genesis (“Back in NYC”) that brought to mind David Eggers re-writing Raymond Carver short stories or David Fincher updating The Conversation.

I have to confess that I’ve recently been intoxicated by Yael Naim’s tripped out fairy tale take on Britney Spears’ “Toxic” like nothing since Buckley (and maybe Tricky’s hypnotic revisionist spin on Public Enemy’s “Black Steel”).  Any pretty young thing can tart it up onstage, but what Naim does with “Toxic” is truly reckless and daringly sexy.  She sells the sense and sensibility behind the sheer thrill of attraction.  This is The Matrix with Bound’s lesbian lovers choosing between the red and the blue pills (“there’s no escape / I can’t wait / I need a hit / baby, give me it”) whereas Britney’s high-flying dance-pop rave felt like a steroid-induced reality show spinning around a stripper pole.

“I’m addicted to you,” Naim sings and I am too.  I’m addicted to her and the idea that a song has done this to me.  This is certainly the feeling Apple wanted to generate when they chose her “New Soul” as the soundtrack for the MacBook Air, but what company in today’s market can dare such a toxic association?  Then again, I never would have dreamed that Britney would speak for me quite so well either.  All of the standards and my cover have been blown once again.


Which means that I’ve spent 1,100 words setting up the real point of this feature – talk about burying the lead – which is my post-Grammy obsession with James Blake. I caught a recent replay of his performance on “Later…with Jools Holland” and while the two brief performances didn’t infect me with feverish passion, let’s say I became a carrier of a infectious germ. My next exposure came during a search through archives of “All Things Considered” on NPR for Oscar Isaac performances from Inside Llewyn Davis. Thankfully, I found “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and set the NPR player on repeat for about an hour, so that I could bathe in the simple plaintive charms of that pitch-perfect match-up of song and voice. As part of the November 3, 2013 segment, there was a discussion with James Blake about the songs that inspired him. Blake chose a song from Sam Cooke (“Trouble Blues” from the album Night Beat) that kicks off with this soul stirring moan from ages ago, and said that this intro led to the opening of “Retrograde,” the single from his release Overgrown.

Of course, I clicked on the player for “Retrograde” and I must admit I wasn’t prepared for what emerged. The sound of Blake’s voice completely obliterated the image I had of this young man from Britain. This voice couldn’t (and shouldn’t) have been borne in any one place on the planet. It hovered in the ether, calling out, begging to be heard. It was heavenly, angelic, but so burdened with emotion its humanity must have incinerated the host body.

“so be the girl you loved / be the girl you loved”

From his own swinging moan to the fragments of lyrics that insinuated themselves in me, this was an old soul made new. My mind was reeling – from Cooke to his former protege Bobby Womack and his latest work. I remember having a similar feeling about “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” the Womack track produced by Damon Albarn. Womack’s voice is raw and raspy, but framed as if captured in a vacuum with accompanying music and sound snippets congealing around him. This is what Blake was tapping into, this effortless marriage of soulfulness and something new (what should we call it -dub, house, dance, electronic – it is all of these things but put to the service of a more organic expression).

Blake’s website (www.jamesblakemusic.com) features the video for “Retrograde” (directed by Martin de Thurah), and in the quietly apocalyptic scene that unfolds, Blake can be seen in brief clips, singing lyrics, but because it is a video, there is a bored effortlessness to his performance. He barely registers beyond the projection of romantic longing he presents. He is an angel fallen from the sky, yet a cool counterpoint to the fireball that cleaves the sky in the video. He’s the friend we’re seeking at the end of the world.

“so show me why you’re strong / ignore everybody else / we’re alone now / we’re alone now”

The site offers several other videos for the viewing pleasure of the soul journeymen who discover this hallowed spot. Every song hinges on beats that approximate the tension between old and new, but Blake stands front and center in the mix. It would be insulting to label him “a blue-eyed soul singer” because that is far too simplistic. Blake calls to mind Lewis Taylor jamming with D’Angelo on the International Space Station for a fevered collection of earthbound soulsters and intergalactic aliens.

Most intriguing are Blake’s covers. The one active video cover is “Limit to Your Love,” a remake of a song from Feist, and again the images traffic in the ethereal, a suspension or loss of gravity and/or grounding. At any moment, in Blake’s world, objects threaten to float away, due to the power of his voice.

“there’s a limit to your care / so carelessly there / is it truth or dare”

What impresses me about him though is the boldness of this choice, along with a second cover (the video link isn’t active) of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Plenty of soul singers have pledged allegiance to Mitchell’s songs (Seal, Prince), but there is a decided lack of this kind of bravery in today’s R&B and pop stars. As I’ve mentioned, a thread exists, of artists who dared to find themselves in the work of others, musical kindred spirits who may not have been obvious inspirations.

Blake, a Best New Artist Grammy nominee this year, slipped under the radar of most radio listeners today. My teenage daughters have no sense of him, yet could rattle off all sorts of details about the other nominees. I sat through the roll call of nominees, saying to myself, “Wow, I kinda like that James Blake,” and that was before I embarked on this obsessive discovery of his work on the Internet.

There are no limits, to the love, care, or talent of James Blake or the potentially generation-spanning audience that finds themselves in his songs.