Though considered a contemporary or smooth jazz artist – in 2010, Billboard Magazine named James “The Number 3 Top Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Decade” – Boney James says he has never thought of himself as a jazz artist, specifically. He cites legendary producer Quincy Jones as a major inspiration, and also says he’s long been influenced by contemporary R&B. Says James, “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.”
Contact is also the name of James’ latest recording, released last year. “The title 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.”
The record was also in reaction to a traffic accident in which James was involved in 2010. Hit by a drunk driver, he fractured his jaw and broke two teeth. His car was totaled, and it took several months for him to recover. After that period, James says, “I was so grateful to be back on stage and back to work…the experience has actually had a positive effect on my shows, and it was a great influence on the new CD.”
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, James began playing clarinet when he was eight, switching to the saxophone when he was ten. With a style often compared to that of Grover Washington, Jr., James moved to Los Angeles when he was fifteen, where he played in a fusion band that opened for Flora Purim and the Yellowjackets. After graduating from UCLA with a degree in history, he was hired by Morris Day to go on the road playing keyboards, but soon switched to saxophone.
James also played with Sheena Easton, the Isley Brothers, Teena Marie and other artists before releasing his first solo record, Trust, in 1992. From there, his popularity has surged: audiences are energized by his high-octane stage performances, and he’s been recognized by the industry with three Grammy® Award nominations (Best Pop Instrumental Album, 2001 and 2004, and Best Traditional R&B Performance, 2009). He’s also earned four gold records, with over three million records sold. Nine of his recordings have reached #1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart, including Contact, which spent 10 weeks at #1.
Reaching across genres is what James is all about, and his collaborations provide ample evidence of that. One of Contact’s standout moments is the ballad “When I Had The Chance,” featuring former Destiny’s Child member Letoya Luckett. The record also includes guests Heather Headley, Mario, and Donell Jones, introducing flavors of dance, club and hip-hop music to the mix. Says James, “I felt really inspired putting together the arrangements and producing the record. There are a lot of things happening right now in modern music. The title, in one sense, refers to me…creating music that I believe is relevant and fresh.”
Other signature collaborations through James’ career include the song “Grazin’ in the Grass” with trumpeter Rick Braun; he’s also worked with Faith Evans, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Philip Bailey, Eric Benét, Angie Stone & Dave Hollister.
The Boston Globe said of James: “Let’s make something perfectly clear: James is not a smooth jazz player. Yeah, he is often grouped with people like Kenny G and Najee, but his music is muscular and gritty, whereas most smooth jazz has all the texture and complexity of a cue ball.”
A consummate musician who plays for his audience, James brings out the good times at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest Main Stage on Saturday August 11.
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