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“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview”

Boney James


Since the release of his debut album Trust in 1992, Boney James has been one of the true architects of the contemporary urban jazz sound. The versatile saxophonist’s fluid, grooving sound—which he insists comes from simply carrying on the pop/R&B traditions of his hero Grover Washington, Jr.—has also made him one of the most successful artists in the genre, with four certified gold albums (500,000 units) and three Grammy nominations, including Best Pop Instrumental Album for Ride (2001) and Pure (2004).
One of his most popular discs was Shake It Up, the 2000 dual album with then-Warner Bros. labelmate Rick Braun, which marked his fourth consecutive #1 hit on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart. Confirming his incredible crossover appeal to the urban market, he has also over the years received two great honors that are generally reserved for African American artists: a Soul Train Award and an NAACP Image Award nomination. In May, 2010, the Lowell, Massachusetts native was involved in a car crash coming home from a performance and received a fractured jaw and two shattered teeth. Making an extraordinary comeback, he scored his ninth #1 Billboard Contemporary Jazz Album with Contact, his sole recording for Verve Forecast. James returns to Concord Music for the release of his latest recording The Beat, a genre-busting collection that fuses his R&B/jazz roots with Latin and Brazilian rhythms and percussion.

JazzMonthly: Last year marked 20 years since you released Trust, which means that The Beat launches you into your third decade as a recording artist? Does it seem like you’ve been doing it this long?

BJ: The time feels a little different as you get older, and it doesn’t actually feel like it has been that long. I can’t believe I’ve been making records for so many years. Trust seems like it was just yesterday.

JM: What has been the most gratifying part of the journey so far?

BJ: From the beginning, people have always asked me what I wanted to achieve in the future, and my response has always been “a career that lasts for years.” I feel like I am still going strong creatively and I can’t complain commercially. The best thing is that I still love doing this as much as I ever did. I am still enthusiastic writing and recording new songs and playing live shows. None of that has diminished. I’ve grown as an artist and musician and that passion just doesn’t go away. That’s a trait shared by all the artists I admire. It’s one of those mysterious things. I know some people in this business get jaded but fortunately that hasn’t happened to me.

JM:  When you started your solo career, what were your goals? Do you think you have fulfilled or surpassed them? What’s been the biggest surprise?

BJ:  The goalposts have moved a bit. With my first album, I had the simple goal of hoping people would notice I am a sax player and not just a keyboardist so I would get more session work. Then once people were buying my music, the goal was a bigger label with more distribution, which came with Warner Bros. Then some albums went gold and I wanted to keep selling more because that meant I was reaching a bigger audience. That’s been the most wonderful part of all this. One of the surprises was learning about the business and marketing aspects, the value of being a great entertainer rather than just a musician who stands up there and plays. I was a pretty bad entertainer at first, but I was able to tap into that part of myself that could put on a show – and I still do. No matter how much success I’ve had with sales and Grammy nominations, I still take a humble approach, with no expectations for the latest project. I focus on the work itself. I want to give people a great musical experience.

JM: Do you ever listen to your older albums? How do you feel you have evolved as a composer and musician along the way?

BJ: I don’t listen to them for fun, but on occasion I will hear old obscure tracks played on SiriusXM Radio that were not played on terrestrial radio when the albums were fresh – and I’ll usually think they sound pretty good. When I put together my tour every year I listen to the older CDs and see if there’s a song I’ve been neglecting for a while. A lot of them do stand up and I’m proud of them. I feel that as a sax player I am more self assured and in touch with the horn. My tone is bigger and I don’t wrestle with it like I did when I was younger. Sonically my tone connection to the instrument has improved. And as a songwriter, I think my songs are becoming deeper melodically and harmonically. There was a learning curve for a while when I started producing my own projects and some of them were a bit disjointed. But the last two before The Beat were more centered and they sounded great from a technical standpoint too.

JM: I understand that you recorded The Beat without an actual label deal. Was there something liberating about doing it as a free agent? What brought you back to Concord after a few years and a single album on Verve?

BJ: I was wooed away to Verve and had pretty good success with Contact, but there was a big corporate shakeup halfway through my time there and those who wooed me were suddenly gone. So there was this period where I wondered what to do and had things to sort out on the business side. I started feeling creative in the meantime. That new energy may have come from not having a deal for the first time in 20 years, like “I’ll show you!” But the truth is that the labels I have been on never told me what to. They trusted me. Still when you’re signed to a label, there’s this pressure, like, someone is waiting for this record, and it has to sell a certain amount. Maybe that’s all in my head, but The Beat started with a good six months in my home studio, making music with no sense that anyone would hear it, and no sense that anyone was waiting for it. That was bound to contribute to its stylistic freeness and my ability to display more of an edge than I did on the last few albums, which were more mellow and sexy. As for Concord, I talked to a few other labels in the interim, but it just felt right to go back. I had success with three records there and they were willing to take a chance on the different direction I was presenting to them on The Beat. It’s good to be home.

JM: The Beat grew out of your love for Latin music and particularly a classic song by Sergio Mendes, “Batucada,” that you cover. Tell me about your interest in that genre. Have you not had the opportunity to explore it on previous recordings?

BJ: I covered Jobim’s “Aquas de Marco” on Shine and “After the Rain” back on Sweet Thing had a little of that flavor. I had been flirting with the idea of doing a Latin record a few times over the years. So I developed this playlist and “Batucada” kept coming back to me as one I needed to translate to the sax. Originally it was a vocal tune with a piano solo. Urban music is my first love, but I have always been intrigued by Brazilian and Latin music, particularly artists like Jobim, Astrud Gilberto and Eddie Palmieri. Both genres are driven by the groove and percussion.

The Beat became a real mashup because I incorporate more Latin percussions into the R&B vibe – and to me, “Batucada” is like a samba as if it were done by the Ohio Players. The rhythm is completely different. I changed some chords, took some pieces from the original’s keyboard lines, and Rick Braun and I are playing the melody instead of the male and female vocalists. It’s totally funkier because I combine that Stevie Wonder styled key bass with a real bass for a heavier groove than the original. The definition of “beat” is striking an object to create patterns, but I include spaces between those hits, creating the album’s mellower moods without drums. “Missing You” is a sexy R&B tune where I took the high hat off and put percussionist Lenny Castro’s maraca on.

JM: You’ve worked with many amazing contemporary R&B singers over the years. This time it’s Raheem Davaughn on the lead Urban AC single “Maker of Love” and The Floacist (Natalie Stewart) from the duo Floetry on “The Midas (This Is Why).” Tell me about those two tracks.

BJ: Raheem has always been on my list of people I wanted to work with. I had a song which lent itself to a great male R&B vocal. I had written the chorus and melody and then I found out that he was a follower of mine on Twitter. I wrote a direct message asking him if he would like to collaborate. Once he was convinced it was really me, I sent him the song. He came up with an amazing lyric. I thought I’d get a demo back but he sent me the finished track, the same one that appears on the record. He did it in one night! As for “The Midas,” as it progressed I felt it was unique and different and in my imagination I thought it would be great to have a woman doing spoken word hip hop. I imagined her voice with an English accent, lending it a Euro coffee bar flavor. I had to reach out to Natalie’s management, and it took some digital back and forth from Los Angeles to the UK, so it was a very step by step collaborative process. 

JM: I heard you scored and co-produced the independent film “Model Minority” that your wife Lily Mariye directed. I know it has received a lot of film festival accolades, so congratulations. Tell me about the film and how scoring a film is different from doing a solo recording?

BJ: It was my first time scoring a feature and it was a great experience. My wife basically said, “I need music and you’re doing it!” The story is kind of dark, gritty drama about a young half Japanese half Caucasian teenage girl living in Los Angeles dealing with racial issues and societal expectations getting in trouble with a drug dealer, with lots of mayhem ensuing. Lily and I both love watching films and I have always admired film scoring as an art form. The tone of the film calls for a very sparse score, a very lonely, sad and minimalist vibe with just acoustic piano, guitar and synth. Some pieces are more rock oriented to reflect the teen angst flavor. It’s very different from recording my own albums. I’m not writing actual songs but music that accentuates the emotions of the scene. I’m very melodic in my own songs and I’m playing to get people to pay attention, but in film, if you have too much melody you take the audience’s ears away from what’s on screen, so atmospheric is the way to go. It’s interesting from a technical aspect and with the help of some special software, I enjoyed the challenge of marrying the music to the picture. On the other hand, I knew I had to do a lot of editing and couldn’t use the sax. So it was a very different kind of venture for me.

JM: The business models of consuming music have changed significantly over the past few decades and it’s hard for any new recordings to equal the sales figures of your classics. Do you think this urban/smooth jazz has a strong future despite the challenges?

BJ: People were so ready to predict the demise of the entire genre just a few years ago, but despite the challenges at terrestrial radio, the music is not going anywhere. People still like it and find new ways to experience it, as well as supporting festivals, shows and annual cruises. I was on a panel with Earl Klugh a few years ago. He has been in the business longer than most of us and he said he had seen contemporary jazz’s fortunes rise and fall over the years, that it’s just the nature of the business. So we shouldn’t be tripping about it. My goal is just to make the music I love and trust that the audience will find it and hopefully enjoy it.