R&B, jazz artist
Boney James has risen in a few short years from a talented session player adaptable to a wide variety of musical styles, to a prominent “contemporary jazz” artist. According to a Morrice’s Jazz Review critic, “Since 1992 Boney James has hit the Jazz music scene with hit after astonishing hit. Boney has definitely made his mark on Contemporary Jazz history.” James characterizes himself more as an instrumental R&B player than a contemporary jazz artist, citing among his own musical influences such artists as Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind & Fire. James contends in the Boney James website: “My music is firmly based in the R&B tradition.” Despite the genre labels, James objects to the categorization of artists as R&B, funk, rock, etc., many of whom “have tremendous elements of jazz in their music—in their harmonies and in the way their songs are structured. Once that music becomes instrumental, all of a sudden it’s ‘contemporary jazz.’ I think the line between the two is much thinner than a lot of people might think.”
James was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and grew up in New Rochelle, New York, where he began playing clarinet at age eight before switching to saxophone at age ten. As a teenager, he began to play keyboards after discovering such R&B/jazz fusion artists as Grover Washington Jr., Ronnie Laws, and the Crusaders. While a college student at Berkeley, he joined a Los Angeles-based fusion band called Line One, which opened for artists such as Airto Moreira and the Yellow-jackets. James found his calling in his late teens, he told Lucy Tauss in e. Bop, when Line One performed “a real show on a real stage. It was at the Improvisation, where they used to have music—now it’s just comedy—and there was a P.A. and lights and an audience, and it was just the most fun I ever had in my life. And I just sort of decided right then and there that, wow, this may be the direction I need to be going in, because I felt passionate about it, which I hadn’t felt about anything really up to that point. That’s when I really decided to be a musician.”
James transferred to UCLA and graduated with a degree in history. He soon developed a reputation as a versatile sessions player in L.A., initially more for his keyboard talents than his saxophone abilities. His first stint as a session player was as a keyboard player in a band formed subsequent to Time by Morris Day, and he soon began landing gigs as a session and tour musician with such acts as The Isley Brothers, Vesta Williams, Teena Marie, Randy Crawford, Bobby Caldwell, and Ray Parker, Jr. During this period James met his future wife, actress Lily Mariye, who appears as a regular on the TV show E.R. (”She’s the one who goes around sticking tubes into people,” Boney commented in the Boney James website).
Born in Lowell, MA; grew up in New Rochelle, NY; married, wife’s name Lily Mariye (an actor on the TV show E.R.); received degree in History at Berkeley; developed a reputation as a versatile sessions player in L.A. with The Isley Brothers, Vesta Williams, Teena Marie, Randy Crawford, Bobby Caldwell, and Ray Parker, Jr., 1980s; recorded first album, Trust, on Spindletop Records, 1992; Backbone, on Warner Bros. Jazz, became first to top the charts, in 1994; hit “Seduction” broke all records on R & R NAC music charts by holding #1 slot for seventeen consecutive weeks, 1995; single “Nothin’ But Love” also achieved #1 hit status on R & R NAC music charts, 1997.
Awards: Gavin Magazine 1996 Smooth Jazz Artist of the Year.
Addresses: Record comparti; —Warner Bros. Jazz, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
After eight years in the circuits, James uncovered an opportunity to pursue a solo career. While touring with Bobby Caldwell in 1991, he met Paul Brown, an engineer/mixer who wanted to become a producer. Brown helped James land a solo deal with a label called Spindletop Records. James’s first album, Trust, appeared in 1992 and featured James on saxophones and keyboards, as well as (among others) Jeff Carruthers on keyboards, Paul Jackson Jr. on guitars, Lenny Castro on percussion, and Freddie Washington on bass. Although the album attracted little critical or popular attention, it nonetheless reflected the subtle romantic honesty that many observors have detected in James’s later work. James specifically wrote one track, “Lily,” for his wife Mariye. “I rememberwhen he wrote it,” Mariye commented in the Boney James website. “He really wanted to write a song that was reflective of who I am—not just something that he could later say, ‘Oh, I’ll call that one Lily.’ I watched him work at capturing me. There are playful parts, thoughtful parts, sexy parts. It’s a real tribute, and very special to me.”
By the time James recorded his next album, Backbone, in 1994, Spindletop Records had folded. Fortunately, Warner Bros, acquired his contract and released the album, which became his first to top the charts. With a major label solidly behind him, James gained increased airplay on jazz radio stations and in his 1995 album Seduction, began playing with such bonified R&B/funk and jazz fusion legends as bassist Me’Shell NdegeOcello and drummer Peter Erskine of Weather Report fame. James’s 1995 hit “Seduction” broke all records on the R & R NAC music charts by holding the #1 slot for 17 consecutive weeks, and a cover of the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” gained him further airplay on urban radio.
James commented on the creation of Seduction with his producer Paul Brown to Lucy Tauss in e. Bop. “We developed a number of tunes that had that sexy, seductive quality to them, and then we started to think, ‘Well, let’s have the record continue to communicate that.’ So we sort of shaped it that way. We don’t set out trying to make a sexy record or a funky record. We just set out trying to make a record. And then, once you see which way it’s headed, you can continue refining it.” Despite the emphasis on romantic moods, however, Seduction showcases a wide variety of influences. Funk and Latin rhythms are evident in “Second Nature” and “Got It Goin’ On,” featuring Me’Shell NdegeOcello. Tauss characterized the album as “an amalgam of styles and musical references.” James commented: “To me, it’s got a lot of elements of jazz, in that it’s highly improvisational and I’m playing a saxophone. It’s instrumental, it’s blues-based, it’s got a lot of jazz in it. But it’s also incorporating all kinds of other things: contemporary R&B music or Motown soul music—whatever. It’s just my roots, my various roots.”
James combines jazz and funk with more traditional influences in his 1996 record, Boney’s Funky Christmas. Reprising such holiday favorites as “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” with such special guests as vocalist Bobby Caldwell and Dee Harvey, as well as percussionists Lenny Castro and Paulinho Da Costa, and guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr., James places a unique and eclectic spin on the music. James noted to Lynda Lane in Music Wire: “Once I decided to do a Christmas album I sat down with my producer Paul Brown and listened to as many other holiday albums as I could find, everyone from Amy Grant, Ella Fitzgerald to Nat King Cole and the Charlie Brown Christmas album. What struck me was that, even though they were all doing pretty much the same material, each artist really gave the songs their distinctive stamp.” James added, “I really tried to make these songs my own, to give them a shape and structure that would bring them alive by coming at them from a different angle.”
In his 1997 album Sweet Thing, James returned to the romantic, contemporary jazz emphases of Seduction while drawing from music of the 1970s. On the Music Previews Network, he commented of the album: “I wanted to explore new directions, while at the same time, touch on some of the music that was important to my own development—everything from jazz fusion to Steely Dan. Theresult is a sort of ‘live meets loop’ approach; modern and retro at the same time.” The album features collaborations between James and several prominent musicians, including vocalist Al Jarreau on “I Still Dream” and former Rufus guitarist Tony Maiden on the title cut, a Chaka Khan original. The single “Nothin’ But Love” became a #1 hit on the R & R NAC music charts. The anonymous reviewer of BMG Music Service commented: “With its unbeatable recipe of delicious saxophone solos and delectable grooves, Boney James’ Sweet Thing will nourish your soul as it satisfies your sweet tooth.”
James’ quick rise to success has instilled in him an ambition to challenge himself further with each subsequent production. He commented to Tauss in e.Bop: “Every now and then I really just stop and smell the roses and say, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve always dreamed of, and it’s actually happening.’ But then you’ve gotta get back to work. You can’t get too satisfied because you start to think you’re happening; then probably you would slide back.” To James, composition is “like a sculpture… where you start with a big rock and then you sort of chip at it until it starts to take some sort of shape and then you follow that. [You] start with all sorts of vague ideas for songs or vague ideas of things you want to try and do, experiments you want to make or players you want to use. And then you just keep stuffing the pot until finally you can sit back and say, ‘You know, I think it’s as good as it’s going to get,’ or ‘It’s done. It’s great. I love it.’”
Trust, Spindletop Records, 1992.
Backbone, Warner Bros., 1994.
Seduction, Warner Bros., 1995.
Boney’s Funky Christmas, Warner Bros., 1996.
Sweet Thing, Warner Bros., 1997.
Music Wire, November 1996.
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