By J. Doug Gill
What a difference a year makes. In May 2010, award-winning saxophonist Boney James was stopped in traffic on California’s 405 freeway when a drunk driver slammed into the rear end of his vehicle.
“I just happened to be the last guy in the line of cars,” James recalled during a phone interview from his Los Angeles-area home where he lives with his wife of 25 years, actress and award-winning filmmaker Lily Mariye. “When I looked at the condition of my car I thought, ‘I could have been killed.’”
Witnesses pulled James from his burning automobile. And, although he was indeed lucky to be alive, he had the misfortune of suffering a fractured jaw, a couple of broken front teeth and a gash in his face that needed 14 stitches to close––not exactly the kind of injuries a man who makes his living with his mouth wants to sustain.
“It was pretty horrible,” James continued with a slight dread in his voice. “They were doing a little bit of everything––even EKGs and all that stuff. I wasn’t worried about my heart; I wasn’t worried about anything but my teeth.”
Even with immediate dental repair, the accomplished instrumentalist still wasn’t convinced he’d be blowing his horn anytime soon.
“They told me I wouldn’t be playing for at least six weeks,” James said, “and it ended up being more than a couple of months before I was able to play. It was physically painful just to attempt it.”
But while the musician who Billboard magazine dubbed “The No. 3 Top Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Decade” was at one time unsure about his future, when healed he returned to both the stage and studio with gusto.
“I was so grateful to be back onstage and back to work on the CD,” James said, his tone becoming increasingly upbeat. “For such a horrible experience it not only had a positive effect on my live shows, but also influenced my approach to the new CD.”
That CD, Contact, written and recorded on the heels of the accident, was released to both critical acclaim and commercial success in late March.
James, described by one publication as the music world’s super-hyphenate (saxophonist-keyboardist-producer-arranger-songwriter), is ecstatic with the way in which both the recording and the supporting live show have been received.
“Super-hyphenate, huh? I hadn’t read that one,” James said laughing. “But I like it. I might even start using it.”
The description only touches on his personal talents, not on the resulting musical creations spawned by his all-encompassing aptitude. Add the diverse musical genres that permeate his catalog––soul, R&B, pop, jazz, urban, adult contemporary, funk–– and it’s easy to see why his nearly 20-year recording career has been so prolific.
“People see someone standing there with a sax in their hand and they immediately think they only play jazz,” said James, expressing his disdain for any type of categorization.
“To me, labels and categories limit the conversation,” he explained. “The music leads the way. I don’t start the [writing] process consciously plotting the music’s direction. The end result is really just what flows out.”
The one exception to that free-flowing style was 2009’s Send One Your Love ––a romantically-based concept album that would ultimately become James' last recording with the Concord Music Group, a break that the saxman said came at a pretty good time.
“My contract was up,” James said matter-of-factly. “I felt like it was an opportunity to look around, to test the water.”
Well, the water was fine, as James wasted no time jumping into the talented pool of Verve Records’ recording artists. Though the industry shift of artists independently marketing and distributing their own material through the Internet and social media has become more prevalent, James expressed no desire in following this trend. “No, no… I love being with a record label,” James said without hesitation.
“Oh, the face of the business is certainly changing,” James continued, “but Verve has really made me feel welcome, and they’re really good when it comes to marketing savvy. Having the dollars behind me is a good thing, too.”
Even in a year that brought significant change to aspects of James' life, the affable performer manages to maintain at least one constant: Contact is the latest entry into a string of hit records.
“Initially, I called the album Contact because it reminded me of the electrical type of contact,” James explained. “But when I started writing the lyrics for the vocal songs it became more about relationships and the connection made between people. The word has many layers.”
But not nearly as many nuances as the contents of the album to which it is applied.
Contact ––which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts––is a tuneful tour de force, seamlessly moving from smoldering ballads to soulful grooves and right on through a hip-hop-kissed jaunt that is as satisfying as it is surprising.
“Modern music is full of new happenings and new directions,” James said. “I think that’s why I felt so inspired, so excited, when I was arranging and producing the album.”
While James' track record as a recording artist can be traced through 17 years of awards and rewards (four gold records, four No. 1 albums, three Grammy nominations, a Soul Train award and NAACP Image Award nomination), it is as a live performer where he’s solidified his reputation as one of the sax world’s preeminent musicians.**
**The complete Hiroshima story can be found in the June issue of Smooth Jazz News. Pick up your free copy at our radio station affiliates (see radio station page for listings), various concerts, festivals and select Southern California outlets. Or you can subscribe and receive 10 issues of Smooth Jazz News per year, mailed monthly (except November and January), for $32. Click here to subscribe online today.
For more information on James, including his complete tour schedule, visit www.boneyjames.com.
120 E. Via Verde
San Dimas, California
Low Country Jazz Festival
North Charleston Coliseum Performing Arts Center
5001 Coliseum Dr.
North Charleston, South Carolina
JW Desert Ridge Jazz Festival
Sage Court in the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa
5350 E. Marriott Dr.
1992 Trust (Spindletop)
1994 Backbone (Warner Bros)
1995 Seduction (Warner Bros)
1996 Boney’s Funky Christmas (Warner Bros.)
1997 Sweet Thing (Warner Bros.)
1998 Sweet Thing/It’s All Good (Warner Bros.)
1999 Body Language (Warner Bros.)
2000 Shake It Up (with Rick Braun) (Warner Bros.)
2001 Ride (Warner Bros.)
2004 Pure (Warner Bros.)
2006 Shine (Concord)
2007 Christmas Present (Concord)
2009 Send One Your Love (Concord)
2011 Contact (Verve)