Did you know that two of the hottest groups in Seattle share the same remarkable guitarist?
We’re talking about Jabrille Williams — stage name, Jimmy James — who fronts the sizzling instrumental octet True Loves, and also holds down the guitar chair in the soulful Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. With venues opening up, both bands are back in business. This month, the True Loves hold forth outdoors at ZooTunes Aug. 11, and Lamarr is looking to make the cozy environs of Jazz Alley even cozier Aug. 24-25.
James’ subtle mastery of minimalist, backbeat guitar groove is the heartbeat of both ensembles. Not a shredding guitar hero — don’t come looking for pyrotechnics, though you’ll hear him solo more with Lamarr’s trio — James is all about tone, feel and time, like a soul music reincarnation of Count Basie’s old guitarist, Freddie Green.
“He has the best rhythm of anybody I’ve ever played with,” says True Loves’ bassist Bryant Moore. “The thing that distinguishes Jabrille from all the other guitar players is his right-hand technique, his strumming hand.”
The True Loves formed in 2014 when James, Moore and drummer David McGraw started jamming and liked it so much they formed a band. For a while, they were fronted by vocalist Grace Love, but in 2016 they parted ways with the singer and James has become the default leader.
If a danceable soulful groove with great horn lines and an in-the-pocket rhythm section is your thing — think Tower of Power, or Antibalas — you can’t go wrong with the True Loves. The band’s new album, “Sunday Afternoon,” is its most solid to date, with meaty horn arrangements featuring Skerik’s thundering baritone saxophone high in the mix and James’ guitar occasionally fed through a rotating Leslie speaker, which gives it an eerie, wobbly sound.
Standouts on the recording include “First Impression,” which skips merrily along as James’ guitar makes spirited conversation with the horns. “Yard Byrds” is slow and sexy, with reverbed notes floating over big bass. On the title track, which has already netted a quarter million plays on Spotify, James spills notes down the neck of his guitar as the horns move into a sweet bridge.
James’ guitar is so precise, pristine and historically correct — dig the bell-like tones on the Lamarr trio’s cover of George Michael and Wham!’s “Careless Whisper” — that gearheads are constantly trying to figure out what equipment he’s using. But sound, says the guitarist, is not about gear.
“The tone is in your fingers,” he declares. “That’s what the elders taught me.”
James, who celebrates his 40th birthday this month, has nothing but respect for his musical elders. Growing up in South Seattle, he wore out the grooves of old records like the Temptations’ “My Girl,” memorizing its seductive intro, and James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” taking in Jimmy Nolan’s double-clutching scratch on rhythm guitar. Self-taught from age 12, James played in a high school soul music ensemble at Summit K-12, where his teacher was jazz pianist Paul Finley.
“Jabrille was that rare person who, at a young age, knows exactly what he wants, and what he wanted was music,” says Finley. “When he was 14, he had completely learned [Jimi] Hendrix’s version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ When he got a groove going in the band, he just had this wonderful, quiet way of showing how much he loved it, by the look on his face.”
The Hendrix connection was deep. James grew up hearing family members reminisce about the fabled guitarist’s days at Garfield High School and his mother’s cousin married pianist Robert Green, who played in Hendrix’s Seattle band, the Rocking Kings.
But beyond Hendrix and soul music, James has an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage music. A mention of the great jazz trumpet player Louis Armstrong prompted him to cite half a dozen cuts from Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings.
“I miss reading the backs of records,” he says of old LPs.
For now, you can reap the benefits of all that knowledge in two great bands. But as world tours open up, James might have to make a choice. The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio’s most recent album, “I Told You So,” debuted at No. 1 on the contemporary jazz charts in February, and the trio has already played a couple of international festivals. The two bands may not be able to share Jimmy James for long.