Four gold albums, five Billboard No.1s, a Soul Train Award and two Grammy nominations into his career, the sax superstar Shines on tour in support of his first recording for Concord Records
By Jonathan Widran
In a marketplace where most artists struggle to sell anywhere near 100,000 with each release, Boney James has had four certified gold albums (500,000 units) and received Best Pop Instrumental Album Grammy nominations for his previous two albums, Ride and Pure. Those good vibes, which he insists come from simply carrying on the pop/R&B traditions of his hero Grover Washington Jr., have made him one of the most successful artists in the genre for nearly 15 years.
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.
“All of the recognition has been wonderful, but when I started making my own music, honestly I wasn’t thinking I was going to conquer the smooth jazz or urban adult contemporary worlds,” he says. “In fact, in the early ’90s, the music I played wasn’t even called smooth jazz, it was NAC. I was just being myself, writing and playing what came naturally to me on sax, and of course I’ve been grateful that the format got behind me.
“I think of myself more as a singer/ songwriter whose voice is the sax,” he adds. “Since I can’t sing, when I write a vocal tune, I hire a great singer like Faith Evans, who came in and quickly nailed ‘Gonna Get It’ on Shine. Each record begins slowly, with an idea here and there before it builds steam and the creativity snowballs. There’s always a great new story to tell.”
The cover of Boney James’ new CD, Shine, shows the saxophonist and his beloved horn silhouetted against the blazing sun, reflecting not only the positive vibes of the album but also the tireless energy (including an average of 60-80 tour dates a year) he’s shared with smooth jazz fans since he released his debut, Trust, in 1992. One of his most popular discs was Shake It Up, his duo album with then-Warner Bros. labelmate Rick Braun, which marked his fourth consecutive #1 hit on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart.
With the fall in full swing, James continues to “Shine” with a new single on the Urban AC charts (the album’s title track, which features lyrics by his actress/writer wife Lily Mariye) and a tour that started in September at Blues Alley in Seattle. It hit L.A’s WaveFest, then continued in New York, Baltimore, St. Louis, Ohio and Pennsylvania last month. After November dates in Boston (near his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts), Indianapolis and Memphis, he’s taking the holidays off before returning for winter and spring 2007 shows that include being a special guest on the All-Star Smooth Jazz Cruise hosted by Brian Culbertson and a stop at the Berks Jazz Fest.
He’s having fun with his all-new band featuring bassist Sam Sims, who first worked with James on Trust as a co-writer on the song “Kyoto”; guitarist Norris Jones (who played with neo soul icon D’Angelo) and drummer Omari Williams, who both hail from Huntsville, Alabama. He found Norris through a cassette demo tape after considering numerous other singer-guitarists from L.A.
Speaking of his criteria for hiring new band members, the saxophonist says, “My favorite thing is when we string tour dates together in such a way that we can take one of those classic tour buses. So I have to be with guys who are fun and who I can spend a lot of time with on the road. Onstage, though, is where it really counts, and they have to have major stage presence and energy. My name may be on the bill, but the show is not all about me, it’s about communication between all of us. And I like to keep it funky, of course. People ask me all the time how I got that way, and I’m sure it’s through lots of practice, or maybe just growing up listening to Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, who knew how to put jazz in their groove. I know my family genetics don’t have funk in them!”
Even if he had to keep it restrained, that funk was there from the beginning of his career, when he himself was a successful sideman. When he started work on Trust with producer Paul Brown––a fruitful collaboration that lasted for over 10 years until James took the reins as producer on Pure––he had built a resume most aspiring pop musicians would kill for, including stints with Bobby Caldwell, Morris Day, the Isley Brothers, Ray Parker Jr., Sheena Easton and Randy Crawford. “But I was frustrated being in a supporting role, having to recreate the music of other people for a living,” he says, “I wasn’t playing the music I loved, and a lot of the time I was playing keyboards. I just wanted a bigger outlet to play the sax, and I’m one of those musicians who needs to feel the love for something to do it. So the next step was writing songs for the sax.”
James is currently celebrating his budding relationship with Concord Records, which he signed with after 10 years as a staple at Warner Bros. Creatively, being with the new label led to two unique collaborations, including his first ever on disc with new labelmate (and longtime hero) George Benson on the track “Hypnotic.” While everyone in smooth jazz thinks Braun or Chris Botti when they want a trumpet part, James called upon another Concord artist, Christian Scott, who is one of straight-ahead jazz’s hottest young performers.
His and Benson’s recent inkings with the Beverly Hills-based Concord typifies the current smooth jazz marketplace, where artists who once had the security and promotional machinery of major labels are now finding smaller independent companies to further cultivate their careers. Earlier in this decade, during a major corporate cutback, Warner Bros. dropped their entire jazz division, keeping only James and Norman Brown on their general roster.
“When I realized I was being absorbed into the rest of Warner Bros. around the time Pure came out, I thought it would either be a great or a horrible experience,” he says. “It didn’t work out so well. Because everything was still being reorganized, the album did well compared to most instrumental releases being put out in smooth jazz, but I considered its performance disappointing in light of the previous success I had. Looking beyond that situation, I looked around at different jazz labels and asked myself, who is committing themselves to adult music that’s not rock, hip-hop or pop? Is there a company out there that knows how to reach the huge audience out there for the kind of music I make? Concord answered those questions, and I like the eclectic roster they have, which included works by Ray Charles and hot younger jazz artists like Peter Cincotti. I never like to pigeonhole myself, and I knew they wouldn’t just market me as just another smooth jazz artist.”
There may be some fans who think being a genre superstar like Boney James is glamorous, but actually, he and Lily––who celebrated their 21st anniversary in September with their two cats––keep it pretty simple at home. While Lily is off during the week working as an actress on ER (a gig she’s had since the show began in the early ’90s), or is otherwise occupied writing screenplays, her husband is out in the converted garage studio writing or recording new parts or practicing his horn. At night, they cook or go out to dinner and catch up on old classic movies. They also love vacationing in Hawaii––Maui, Lanai, or Kauai––just chilling on the beach, reading, getting a massage, or, if they’re feeling up to it, snorkeling.
“I am living up to my vow to give Lily my complete attention on Sundays, but every other day of the week, I’m sharing time with the other love of my life, the saxophone,” says James. “It was great to have her more creatively involved as a songwriter on Shine, but she’s always been a great sounding board for my music. When I look back at the last 15 years, I think the feeling I keep coming back to is gratitude that I can make music, that I actually get to do it. Whether I’m playing onstage, rehearsing or recording, it’s always a joyous process for me. And beyond writing good songs that people want to hear, practicing my craft is really the key to the success I’ve had. I really think I owe it to the music to practice as hard as I can. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a great responsibility.”
Boney James is scheduled to perform at the 3rd Annual Cayman Jazz Fest on Dec. 1 at the Westin Casuarina Resort & Spa on Pageant Beach, located at Seven Mile Beach Strip in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. For tickets or more festival information, log on to www.caymanislands.ky/jazzfest or www.ticketweb.com.
James is also booked on the seven-day All-Star Smooth Jazz Cruise hosted by Brian Culbertson aboard Carnival Cruise’s Conquest, which departs Galveston, Texas, on Jan. 27, with ports of call to Montego Bay, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel, Mexico. For reservations or information on this cruise, call (877) 529- 9729, or log on to www.allstarcruise.com.
James also has a variety of tour dates this month which can be found on his website, www.boneyjames.com.
Boney’s Funky Christmas
Shake It Up (w/ Rick Braun)