"Zena James was profiled in January JJ, where I sang the praises of her soulful unpretentiousness and solid musicianship. One may look for flaws here, but there are none, despite the exposed setting for the voice. The disc reminds us of the persistent appeal of the blues and gospel roots of jazz, presenting fresh interpretations that draw on the inspiration of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, two musicians noted for their intuitive use of rich jazz harmony. James and arrangers Taggart and Bradley bend a wide range to their unifying purpose, including Dangerous Game (a Thunderbirds theme rendered in fine Latin), and five jazz standards rearranged without awkwardness as modern soul grooves. Very few jazz followers could argue soundly with the outcome or James’s ever persuasive voice.
Mark Gilbert, Jazz Journal, March 2011
"Zena James launched Captivated last Sunday, and the whistles and whoops proved that she is steadily acqiring a fair number of fans for her brave leap into the soul-laden subtle groove end of the jazz spectrum. On stage she projects a warm,engaging personality,and an infectious sense of enjoyment in the work of her fellow musicians that is really captivating. No histrionics, just heartfelt emotion. Her choice of material was almost impeccable ,with Joe Sherman's That Sunday, That Summer and Stevie Wonder's I Can Only Be Me two of the most touching things that I have heard in months. Her treatment of Human Nature, fast becoming a crossover favourite was just gorgeous. Zena has been getting a good radio response to the new album and on this showing, thoroughly deserves it."
Brian Blain, LondonJazz - 31 January 2011
For full review, see http://londonjazz.blogspot.com/2011/01/review-zena-james.html
"Captivated: Creative and compelling, vocally faultless...At all times, Zena's voice connects thanks to a resonant and honest emotional expressiveness that never falters. She is an exceptional talent."
Mark Gilbert, Editor, Jazz Journal - Jan 2011
"From the outset, she uses her lustrous tone and her especially rich, buttery lower register to engaging effect. An ambitiously programmed 12-track collection of originals, soul-pop classics and judiciously reworked standards. James really shines on sparkling intepretations of Stevie Wonder's I Can Only Be Me, That Old Black Magic and Comes Love. It's not only her ability to sustain the melodic line that particularly impresses, it's also the wide-eyed clarity she brings to songs such as the slice of nostagia made famous by Nat King Cole, 'That Sunday That Summer'.
Peter Quinn, Jazzwise, Feb 2011
"Listen out for rising jazz chanteuse Zena James, whose Derek Nash-produced second album Captivated (*** Splash Point Records) is an alluring amalgam of jazz, pop, funk and soul that tips its hat to tradition, yet maintains a strong, zestful contemporary feel. Among several standouts, there's a cool jazz deconstruction of Michael Jackson's Human Nature."
Charles Waring, Record Collector, December 2010
"Back in 2007 I reviewed London based jazz/soul singer Zena James’ début recording “Tell Me More”, a highly accomplished first album made in the company of an excellent band. Three years on James is back with “Captivated” …It’s an original, “Captivated”, that opens the album with James’ sultry, soulful vocals combining with Taggart’s funky Rhodes and Hammond plus Allen’s smoky sax….. skilfully done with a confident vocal and tasty instrumental solos. On “Gypsy In My Soul” James delivers another strong soul/jazz performance.
James and her band deliver a persuasive after hours version of the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature”. The second James/Taggart original is “You Move Me” which pairs James’ seductive vocal with Bettison’s liquid bass groove
Rob Taggart’s arrangement of Glen Ballard and Sananda Maitreya’s 2001 song “Shadows” adds Bradley’s hip hop grooves to the familiar pop/soul/jazz elements. It’s the most contemporary sounding song on the album and suggests that James could enjoy considerable crossover success given the right breaks.
The inclusion of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can Only Be Me” acknowledges James’ soul background. She turns in a particularly impressive performance in this beautiful arrangement for just voice and piano. Taggart’s sensitive accompaniment deserves praise too.
“Captivated” is an enjoyable album. James’s warm, soulful voice is well suited to her chosen material, the arrangements are imaginative and intelligent, the playing excellent and Nash’s pinpoint production brings out the details beautifully.
"Captivated proves a compelling combination of the sophistication of jazz and the emotional directness of soul, made more potent by a soupçon of funk flavouring thrown into the mix. Zena's choice of material is similarly eclectic; she applies a contemporary makeover to a mixture of jazz standards and vintage songs but also includes her own versions of songs penned by Stevie Wonder and the UK blue-eyed soul man, Lewis Taylor."
Charles Waring, www.souljazzfunk.com - 15 Oct 2010
"Captivated: an imaginative blend of soul-pop and standards. Zena's relaxed style and clear vocalising unite flawlessly with the classy supporting cast...consummate playing."
Musician magazine, Winter 2010
Cafe in the Crypt, London, Sep 2010
Staggeringly excellent. She is a true find - GET HER BACK...A live wire if I ever saw one!!
Carswell Jazz Club, Faringdon, Oxon, March 2008
"Commanding and expressive....if you like your mainstream jazz coming from a bluesy soul perspective - think Eva Cassidy rather than Dinah Washington - then her Tell Me More CD won't disappoint."
Selwyn Harris, Jazzwise, March 2007
“Emotive delivery...compelling originals”
“Warm sultry voice...top class”
"A triple play from Zena James - love it to bits.......you'll be hearing a lot more from this album over the coming weeks at Smooth FM"
Dave Brown, Smooth FM, Jan 2007
"A new British jazz talent worth listening out for is Zena James, whose debut album is an impressive opus...
Charles Waring, Record Collector, April 2007
"A lovely smooth and warm voice and an eclectic repertoire ...she does a particularly fine job of reworking the older tunes..."
Alison Kerr, Scotland on Sunday, Feb 2007
“A fine, delightfully understated debut album…her voice has a light rarified tone and quietly clear diction that projects a sense of intimacy”
Garry Booth, BBC Music Magazine, May 2007
"All 12 tracks are emminently listenable....a consistently stylish entertainer....I hope there is ample room on the jazz scene for Zena James."
Les Tomkins. Jazz Rag, Spring 2007
"Lovely warm, sultry voice...engrossing set of considered classics...top class"
Keith Ames, Musician magazine, Spring 2007
“An excellent production…Zena’s version of ‘Throw it Away’ deserves to have ‘hit’ written all over it”
Brian Blain, Jazz UK, August 2007
"A relative newcomer to the crowded field of young female jazz singers, Zena James is - on the evidence of her album Tell Me More - distinguished by a readiness to apply her smooth yet emotive delivery to less obvious material. She also has a couple of compelling originals."
The Independent, Jan 2007
"A very good debut from a fine young singer....appealing fizz ....it's quality stuff."
Andrew Vine, Yorkshire Post, April 2007
"Tell Me More - A really great debut album."
Keith Warmington, BBC Radio Bristol, March 2007
"Look out for her...an impressive debut album...a convincing vocal storyteller."
Campbell Burnap, Dec 2006
"In an increasingly crowded field, Zena James more than holds her own on this, her debut album. Her voice has a flexible strength particularly well suited to soul- and gospel-laced material (here best represented by Smoky Robinson's 'Who's Lovin; You?' but also apparent in the bluesy renditions of Billie Holiday's 'Fine and Mellow' and Billy Myles' 'My Love Is') but she is also capable of more restrained grace and poise ('You've Changed' is addressed with touching drama; Abbey Lincoln's 'Throw it Away' with thoughtful dignity). Well served by a gutsily sympathetic band - saxophonist Simon Allen, bassist Geoff Gascoyne , drummer Mike Bradley and keyboard player Geoff Castle, James sounds the real deal; relaxed and informally intimate yet unaffectedly musical, with an intelligent approach to the familiar lyric ('You're My Thrill', 'Blue Skies') and a good ear for a neglected or taken-for-granted classic. A fine appetiser for what promises to be a powerful live act."
Chris Parker, Vortex Jazz Club, Jan 2007
LondonJazz Live Review - Cafe in the Crypt Concert
September 1st 2010
The crypt at St. Martin-in-the-Fields kicked off its “Jazz at the Crypt” series on Wednesday with Zena James and her band. It was also the pre-release show for Zena's new album “Captivated,” which comes out later this year.
Zena is a great lover of jazz, R&B and soul and her voice reflects the wide range of moods of the music. She loves it, imitates it and enjoys the subtleties of it. She can have playful phrasing, as in the opening number “Why Don't You Do Right” and “Gypsy In My Soul”, she can be calm (“Small Day Tomorrow”) and she can be seductive (“You Make Me Wanna”). Then there are moments where Zena will just tilt her head back and and immerse herself in the music, like she did during “You Move Me”, one of two songs of her own that she sang during the show.
Accompanying her was the band that played on the album, apart from pianist Mike Guy who took the place of her usual pianist Rob Taggart. Mike's lines were focused and well-crafted especially on “That Old Black Magic” and “Human Nature.
Bassist Patrick Bettison kept the band grounded with groovy riffs (“My Love Is” in particular). Simon Allen as the accompanying sax player played strongly, though I found his playing at times over-aggressive. Drummer Mike Bradley provided great textured drumming, especially on the hi-hat. His solos were particularly exciting.
I'm not sure if it was the sound system or the crypt's stone walls and floor, but Zena's full vocal range didn't come through. It does on the album, where she can sound intimate and warm. For example, when she reached for high notes, they came soaring through, but whispering low notes didn't come through on the speakers to where I was sitting very well. It's wonderful on her albums and it would perhaps be more apparent in a venue that isn't made of stone.
Robert O'Connor is a freelance journalist and writer from St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press Magazine, NewCity Chicago and KFAI.