You’d never know it from the effortlessly soulful melodies and silky grooves of his records, but Boney James becomes a mad scientist in the studio while working to create sounds that feel as soothing as a tropical breeze.
“I was a nut making this record,” the acclaimed saxophonist/songwriter/producer admits with a laugh while discussing Shine, his 10th solo album and first for Concord Records. “My wife calls me Mr. Einstein. I’ll come in from the studio with crazy hair and this wild look in my eyes. I get obsessed – so much so that I actually have a song on this record called ‘Let It Go.’”
“But when I pick up the sax,” he adds, “I get out of that producer headspace and become the performer who just wants to take the audience on a journey.”
Shine features guest appearances by hip-hop/soul diva Faith Evans, jazz-guitar icon George Benson, R&B vocalists Dwele and Phillip Bailey, keyboard wizard George Duke, alternative-pop singer Esthero and Sounds of Blackness powerhouse Ann Nesby.
Boney produced the disc and played tenor, soprano and alto saxes, keyboards and flute. He wrote or co-wrote nine of Shine’s 12 tracks.
Faith Evans lends her supple pipes to the rambunctious, rock-tinged R&B song “Gonna Get It,” which Boney co-wrote with Rahsaan Patterson. “Faith is a huge star, and I was really flattered that she wanted to work with me,” Boney relates. “And I was floored not only by how hard she worked on the track, but by how incredibly gracious she was.”
“In the Rain,” a contemplative soul tune that was a #1 hit for Detroit group the Dramatics in 1972, is sung here by Dwele, another Motor City native. Boney traveled to Detroit to lay down the smoldering track, which showcases his sumptuous tone on tenor sax.
Shine finds the veteran musician conjuring an array of moods – from the jaunty bounce of the title track and “Gonna Get It” to the velvety seductions of “Love Song” and “Hypnotic,” from the delicate “In the Rain” and the introspective “Dedication” to the ebullient stride of “Let It Go.” What ties it all together, apart from Boney’s endlessly lyrical, emotive playing on tenor, soprano and alto sax (among other instruments), is a glow of joy that’s as evident in the record’s languid passages as in its most effusive solos.
“I realized, as I was putting the finishing touches on it, that this was a really upbeat, positive record,” Boney notes with satisfaction.
Perhaps no track on Shine better exemplifies this effervescent vibe than his rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s shimmering classic “Aguas De Março (Waters of March).” “I’d never done a Bossa Nova tune, and this is one of my all-time favorites,” he points out. “It’s in constant rotation on my iPod.”
Boney can’t help gushing about his supporting cast, but his excitement about Benson’s contribution betrays the ardor of a longtime fan. “It was a big deal for me, having George on the record,” he says of Benson’s appearance on the song “Hypnotic.” “I’ve been listening to him since I was 12 or 13. I’d opened for him a few times; we knew each other from the road and various events. But it was a thrill having him play on my track.”
Having sold millions of records (resulting in four gold certifications), received two Grammy nods, a Soul Train Award and an NAACP Image Award nomination, and filled arenas around the world, Boney continues to rely on an intuitive approach to creativity. “I have piles of notebooks filled with ideas,” he reveals. “I never quite know what a project is going to be until it’s done. I just love the process of building a record, of putting all the little pieces together.”
“Not too long ago, another sax player asked me, ‘What’s your concept?’ I said I didn’t think I had one,” he recalls. “But the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that everything is rooted in playing songs I believe in. It’s all about that emotional connection.”
Born in Massachusetts and raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., James Oppenheim began playing music at the tender age of eight. “I started on clarinet,” he remembers. “I wanted to play trumpet – the instrument of choice for boys – but the music store was out of them and I didn’t want to wait. I was impulsive.”
By the ripe old age of ten, he was urged to take up the saxophone by his music teacher, who faced a glut of clarinetists; though he resisted at first, young James was persuaded when he saw a performance by a local junior high school’s stage band. “If I played sax, I could get into stage band, so I switched – and right away I loved it,” he recollects. “Mostly it was the sound. But it also opened up a world of pop songs I could suddenly play.” Soon he was fronting a small combo at school assemblies. “I began to define myself as a musician,” he says.
He’d been exposed to jazz through his father’s record collection, which included watershed LPs by the likes of Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans – not to mention the pop-jazz of Herb Alpert, which James covered with his school combo – but it was in high school that he first encountered the sounds that would influence him most. “Our teacher played us a Grover Washington record, and that’s when I really made the R&B-jazz connection,” he reports. “Then I got heavily into Stevie Wonder’s seminal records, Earth Wind & Fire, Curtis Mayfield, and jazz artists like the Crusaders and Ronnie Laws.”
His late teens – during which time his family relocated to Los Angeles – saw him join a promising band. “We got a little record deal but it fell through and we were crushed,” he remembers with amusement. “I said, ‘I could never be in the record business – it’s too frustrating!’” He headed off to UC Berkeley, intending to study law, and for a while scarcely touched his sax. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” he avers. “It was definitely a confusing year.” But a trip to L.A. to visit his folks put him in touch with a local fusion band, Line One. “I sat in with them at a gig, and a light bulb went on,” he declares. “It was the most fun I’d ever had.”
Another member of Line One, John Shanks, later became one of the hottest producers in pop music, working with artists like Sheryl Crow, Fleetwood Mac, Alanis Morissette and Ashlee Simpson; he and Boney would eventually meet up again – at the Grammys, when both were nominated.
Transferring to UCLA so he could continue playing with the band, Boney threw himself into music once again, delivering pizzas to eke out a living. Despite some prestigious opening spots on the road, a “Star Search” appearance and the tutelage of Little Feat’s Kenny Gradney, however, Line One never took off – and eventually dissolved.
Shortly thereafter, he auditioned for a spot backing up Morris Day, the charismatic former frontman of funk band The Time. Hired as a keyboardist, he was also given a sax spotlight in the set. “I’d felt like a loser, and suddenly I was touring with a big star,” He notes ruefully. “I was mainly playing keyboards and jumping around, but it was a thrill for me. Then the tour ended and I had to go back to delivering pizzas. That was a shock, but such is the life of a sideman.”
He subsequently backed up such artists as The Isley Brothers, Randy Crawford, Sheena Easton, Ray Parker, Jr., and Bobby Caldwell. It was on the road with Crawford that he earned his now-famous moniker; his per diem as a touring musician barely kept him fed, and a bandmate notoriously commented of his dwindling physique, “At this rate we’ll have to start calling you Boney James!”
Ultimately, though, it was the diminishing musical challenges of sideman work that pushed him in a new direction. “I was touring with a pop singer, Martika, and found myself triggering background samples,” he volunteers. “I didn’t see any future in it. I wanted to play my sax more, and the only way to do that was to write my own songs that featured me.” An opportunity arose to make a solo disc for the indie label Spindletop. “I had no expectations, but it turned out to be a cool record,” Boney remarks of Trust, which yielded several tracks that continue to garner radio play and led to a deal with Warner Bros.
Over the course of more than a decade, he delivered a string of hugely successful albums on Warner that blended jazz and R&B – virtually spawning the subgenre known as Urban Jazz.
2004’s Pure marked his debut as his own producer. “I did most of it in my home studio and there was a learning curve,” he acknowledges of the recording space in his L.A. home, which he shares with his wife, actress and filmmaker Lily Mariye (“E.R.”). “But while recording Shine I really saw the benefit of working at my place and on my own schedule. If I have an idea, I can realize it.”
Energized by a new release on a new label, Boney reaffirms his excitement about returning to the road. “The communal experience of playing live – that’s why I became a musician in the first place,” he insists. “It’s exciting and liberating. It never gets old for me.”
It also allows him a temporary escape from the mad scientist, who will most certainly have fresh challenges for him next time.
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