Boney James on right path after ‘Detour’
Saxophonist back at Clyde Theatre after trip at sea
You might think the glory days of smooth jazz have past, but not for saxophonist Boney James. Thirty years following his solo debut, he is at the top of his game, the top of the charts, and a sort of captain on the high seas (we’ll get to that).
Luckily for us, he’ll be coming to town with opening act Bashiri Asad on Friday, Feb. 17, at The Clyde Theatre
From sideman to main man
James Oppenheim caught the nickname Boney James when he was literally lean and hungry as a young touring sideman in Europe in the 1980s. He got his training on the road with legends like The Isley Brothers, Morris Day, and Bobby Caldwell. Backing and supporting R&B, funk, and blue-eyed soul, James learned to be a compelling entertainer.
But he yearned for more, and perhaps better meals, too.
“I got frustrated with being a sideman,” he told Whatzup over the phone. “I had been writing songs like many sidemen, where everyone’s trying to get that cover, trying to get a Madonna single or whatever it was at the time, and a publishing deal and augment your income as a writer. I wasn’t liking any of the songs I was writing to try and pitch to pop stars, and I thought, ‘What if I just try and write songs for me, featuring the saxophone?’ The songs really started to get better because they were coming more from the heart.
“Then I happened to be touring with Bobby Caldwell’s band in 1990 and ’91. The guy that was in front of house was named Paul Brown. He was an aspiring record producer and had a little in with an independent label. He called me up one day after we got back from the tour and asked, ‘Hey, man, did you ever want to make a record?’
“So I played him my songs, and two weeks later we were in the studio making my first record, Trust (1992). Right away I started getting played on video, and I sold enough copies that Warner Bros. came in and bought my contract. It just kind of took off like a meteor, man. It was amazing.”
creeping back into charts
James built a sound with a strong identity. He plays it smooth, for sure, but he has always kept an edge on it by incorporating a few elements from funk and hip-hop, with featured guest stars along the way.
Last year, he came to The Clyde on his chart-topping album Solid. Now he’s back with his 18th album, Detour, which has brought him back to the success and renown of his heyday in the ’90s.
Among the standout songs on Detour is “Coastin’,” a collaboration with singer Lalah Hathaway.
“She’s amazing,” James said of Hathaway. “She’s Donny Hathaway’s daughter, and she’s a five-time Grammy winner. So it was really an honor to have her agree to sing on the record. She wrote this beautiful melody and lyric for this track. I think it might be one of my highest-charting crossover R&B singles. It was just up in the mid-teens, and that’s for a sax player. That’s not bad. And I just got this NAACP Image Award, too.
“I’ve had numerous No. 1’s on the Smooth Jazz chart and the (Adult Contemporary) chart. I’ve had lots of charting singles, I had one that went Top 5. But since (the ’90s), the playlists have tightened up with the consolidation of radio into a more corporate model. So to break into the teens like we’ve done today, it’s a real achievement.
“I’m just doing what I’ve always done, which is just try and write songs that I like personally,” James added. “I’m really an audience of one when I’m making the record, and I try not to think about anything other than that. How’s it feeling for me, and the joy in creating things that I still have. All I know is that I’m loving the record-making. Luckily there still seem to be a bunch of people that agree.”
Taking a cruise
Now about the high seas.
We phoned James in his stateroom on the cruise ship Celebrity Millennium on Jan. 20 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when they were about to put out to sea for two back-to-back one-week tours with the annual Smooth Jazz Cruise, which has been going since 2004. James was the headliner and co-host with the great jazz bassist Marcus Miller.
“It’s an honor,” James said.
It was a huge bill of solo artists and bands. Michael McDonald and Vanessa Williams were featured. Among an amazing roster of instrumentalists and singers, James found himself hosting just about every other smooth jazz saxophonist on the scene today: Candy Dulfer, Eric Marienthal, Mindi Abair, Vincent Ingala, Marcus Anderson, and Marqueal Jordan. I wanted to know if there was some kind of rivalry going on.
“Everyone’s very friendly,” James said. “I was just downstairs chatting with Gerald Albright, and yeah, it’s actually fun. It’s kind of like music camp for us, because it’s like 2,500 of your most devout fans and 20 other artists. We all just play music all week and people really appreciate it and they treat you like you’re a star and it doesn’t suck at all.”
It’s becoming clear that most of the great live music events these days happen on cruise ships, and I keep thinking I should ask Whatzup to send me on one. James supports the idea: “These music cruises are, honestly, the most fun gig I do all year, next to The Clyde!”
Well then, those of us who are landlocked can cross the St. Marys River on Feb. 17 and climb on board at The Clyde, where James will provide a cruise of an evening. His crew are longtime associates Amari Williams on drums, Smitty Smith on bass, Big Mike Hart on guitar, and Carnell Harrell on keyboards.
“People who haven’t seen us live are often surprised that it’s a fun and engaging and entertaining show,” James said. “I am coming from the Minneapolis background, and I toured with The Isley Brothers, and I always put on a show! We’re going to involve the audience and we’re going to have a really good time.”