Boney James dislikes labels and refuses any and all of them. “In fact, I have never thought of myself as a ‘jazz’ artist specifically,” he says.
Of course, this statement may serve as a source of confusion for the musician’s legion of fans that have scooped up over 3 million copies of his twelve albums (with eight of them going to No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart). It also may seem contradictory to the respected opinions of music critics who consider him one of the most influential jazz artists of his generation. In 2010 Billboard Magazine named him “The No. 3 Top Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Decade.”
Even so, Boney James, who has four Gold albums, three Grammy® nominations, a Soul Train Award and an NAACP Award nomination to his credit, says, “I am just a saxophone player whose music has several different influences. Jazz is only one of them.”
His newest CD Contact — completely produced, arranged and co-written by James — is driven by the signature soulful grooves the world has come to expect from him, but with an added intensity. “I felt really inspired putting together the arrangements and producing the record,” he says. “There are a lot of things happening right now in modern music. The title, in one sense, refers to me reaching across genres and creating music that I believe is relevant and fresh.”
This incredibly accomplished artist — who broke into music in the mid-80s touring with acts such as The Isley Brothers, Morris Day (The Time), Randy Crawford and Teena Marie, and emerged as a solo force in 1992 with his breakthrough debut, Trust — has long been influenced by contemporary R&B.
Contact boasts high-profile vocal guest appearances from Grammy® and Tony® Award winner Heather Headley; platinum-selling singer and former member of Destiny’s Child, LeToya Luckett; and R&B superstars Mario and Donnell Jones.
“The title, ‘Contact’, initially reminded me of an electrical contact,“ says James. “But, once I started getting deeper into the record and writing the lyrics for the vocal songs, it seemed to me to also be about love, the connection between people and the frequent regret people experience as a result of missed opportunities. ‘Why did I not do this or that?’ People ask themselves that all the time. The word has so many layers.”
Contact also speaks to his personal life. Last spring, while in traffic on a Los Angeles highway, Boney’s car was totaled when he was rear-ended by a drunk driver. He instantly thought of the future of his career. “One moment, I was on my way home thinking about what I was going to have for dinner and the next moment I was in an ambulance with a fractured jaw and two missing front teeth thinking I may never play my sax again. Looking at the car, I knew I could have been killed. Months later, after healing, I was so grateful to be back on stage and back to work on the CD. The experience has actually had a positive effect on my shows and it was a great influence on the new CD, Contact.”
“When I Had The Chance,” featuring Letoya Luckett, is a beautiful ballad with a theme of regret. She sings along with James’ moody sax and together they deliver one of the most poignant moments on the album. “When I have a vocal song and I am looking for a singer, it’s almost like casting for me. I think, ‘Who can bring this song to life?’ I have been a huge fan of LeToya’s for years. In fact, when I first heard her song ‘Torn’ on the radio, I actually pulled over and called the radio station and asked who it was. She was the first one on my list to reach out to record this song.”
Boney says he has also been a fan of Heather Headley and was honored to work with her on the dancehall-tinged track “I’m Waiting,” despite the less-than-ideal recording conditions. “The night before our session, I was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in St. Thomas, doing a show and she was in Chicago. So I traveled from an awesome 90 degrees to a 5-degree snow storm!” he laughs. “She is such a talent and I believe her acting experience was really helpful in her expression of the lyrics. It’s a song about a woman finding herself waiting and wishing for her boyfriend to get it together. On the sax, I am playing the role of the bad boyfriend. It’s an interesting duet.”
Also exciting are his collaborations with Mario on the club-influenced track “That Look On Your Face,” and Donell Jones on “Close To You,” a smooth but unexpectedly lively trip-hop-esque track. “I’ve admired Mario since his mega-hit ‘Let Me Love You’ and it was great working with him. I loved Donell’s early records in the late ‘90s and his current successful album, Lyrics. I thought he was the perfect voice for the track and he made the verses on the song really mean what I intended when I wrote them. It’s about a guy missing his opportunity and wanting to make contact with the woman he loves.”
Boney cites legendary producer Quincy Jones as a major inspiration. “I admire him and his ability to make great vocal tunes as well as instrumentals. His genius in combining both inspired me while making this record. I hoped to accomplish a true ‘hybrid’ of sounds.”
And although Boney’s music has in the past been categorized by some as “smooth jazz,” with his masterful new CD Contact he refuses to accept any type of labeling. “I always try to make sure my records possess integrity. I make Boney James music. I’m just trying to break down the barriers and make CONTACT.”
A bit of background on Boney:
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he took up the clarinet at the age of eight and switched to saxophone when he was ten. Raised in New Rochelle, New York, he was influenced by Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. When James was 14, his family moved to Los Angeles. He received a degree in History from UCLA and began playing music full-time after graduation. Boney resides in Los Angeles with his wife, actress-filmmaker Lily Mariye (best known as Nurse Lily Jarvik on ER for 15 seasons).