A dinner party at Pino Palladino's house, to be exact. The Minneapolis native was living in London when a friend gave him Palladino's number, which led to an invitation to dine at the famed guitarist's house.
When the meal ended, however, James' album began.
As the two sat in Palladino's studio, Palldino played a few chords he had never been able to do anything with and challenged James to compose something "interesting and jazzy" with them. Fifteen minutes later, "Make It Right" -- the first song off of No Beginning No End -- was written.
"That was the beginning of our relationship," James recalls. "That song was really key because Pino ended up co-producing the album with me, which was a complete dream come true. Something that I never thought would happen."
The album, James' Blue Note debut, reflects the influences of his childhood: His Panama-born father's career as a tenor sax and percussion musician, and the funk, R&B and folk music his mother would play in the car. James himself sang in a choir and played jazz guitar in high school.
In stores Jan. 22, No Beginning No End is a showcase of James' multifaceted musical background, as drawn out by Palladino.
"He really brings out the best in everybody that's around him and I can't say that about every artist or musician," James says. "He has no ego, he's totally selfless and there for the music and that energy in song-writing or rehearsing, anything. He just uplifts the whole performance. I couldn't have made this album this way without him."
The project weaves different relationships through songs such as "Come To My Door," "Heaven on the Ground," and the standout "Trouble." James doesn't give names, but his method of drawing inspiration leaves room for discussion.
"Whenever I'm talking about relationships, it's always at least three things," he says. "It's my relationship with myself, my relationship with God or an idea, and then usually somebody, a real person. I try to operate on all three levels at the same time and it's difficult, but I never want to have a break-up song or something like that. I try to open it up so people can get a lot of interpretations, which are all probably correct."
James doesn't hesitate to discuss one of his relationships -- that with jazz pianist and recorder producer Robert Glasper. Glasper's jazz background and variety of musical influences made him an ideal contributor to No Beginning No End.
"He was playing down at the Village Vanguard in New York and I reached out to him and he invited me down before the show," James says. "We sat in the famous club, the best jazz club in the world, and at that piano that McCoy Tyner and all the legends played on, and we wrote the song 'Vanguard.' I thought it was a cool double meaning -- obviously the club, but also because I consider him to be at a new 'vanguard' of music, this kind of connecting the dots between soul/jazz/hip-hop/gospel and pop music. Nobody plays like him, nobody sounds like him."
No Beginning No End marks a milestone in James' growth as an artist. Two years ago he found himself in Paris, financing an album and uncertain of the outcome. Just as a dinner with Pino Palladino changed James' career, a meal with Saul Williams and Cody ChesnuTT two years ago gave him the courage to pursue his dream.
"They just said 'Doesn't matter. Just follow your dream, follow your voice. Follow that and let it happen and good things come from that,'" James recalls. "Sure enough, here I am signed to Blue Note, met Pino Palladino, Hindi Zahra, Robert Glasper, and about to tour the world with my new album. They were absolutely right."