José James Channels Classic Soul with Revelatory Cover of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”
In recent years, jazz singer José James has recorded tribute albums that paid homage to both Billie Holiday and Bill Withers. He continued this theme on his new album No Beginning No End 2 by including a cover of another song by a guy named Billy. This time it’s Billy Joel’s much-maligned wedding staple “Just the Way You Are.”
I’m just going to come out and say it: I despise the original. By one account, Joel is not a fan either. He almost left it off his 1977 album The Stranger. So, at first, I was skeptical when I saw this song on James’ tracklist. This trepidation turned to downright excitement on my first listen. James has reworked it into a piece of classic soul that outshines the original.
On his new album, James channels several different eras of soul. One can hear a strong influence of the ‘70s sounds of Withers as well as soul-jazz master George Benson. On the album’s third track, “Feels So Good” he borrows from Nile Rodgers and Chic with some heavy funk guitar. As I listened to the record, I was also reminded of ‘90s albums by the likes of D’Angelo and Eryka Badu, i.e. a fusion of slow, syncopated rhythms with soul, jazz and hip hop.
If I had to place “Just the Way You Are” in one of these camps, I would say James plays the song almost as Withers would have performed it in the late ‘70s. Gone are the smooth sax flourishes of the original (in fact, there’s no sax at all). James anchors the song with a snappy piano groove. He sings as though he’s trying to seduce the world, one lucky paramour at a time. Towards the finale, he throws in a tight blues guitar solo, as if emulating B.B. King. Forget about the wedding dance, this cover will make you want to slow jam the night away.
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The smooth sax flourishes were badass and performed by Phil Woods on the original, one of the giants of bebop.