Smooth Sax Played Hard
Not everybody can say that they once had their pizza delivered by an acclaimed saxophonist. But then again the folks who populate the exclusive confines of California's Beverly Hills aren't your average customers.
"I don't know the most famous person I delivered to," says smooth jazzer Boney James, who doubled as a pizza delivery dude early in his musical career. "I mean, Susan Anton. The guys from Tom Petty's band called us a lot. And Bert Young was a big fan of our stuff."
Eventually James gave up the gig -- "my car smelled like pizza for months," he laughs -- without once trying to take advantage of his access. "It never occurred to me to tell them about my musical career," he says. "It would have been kind of awkward: Here's your pizza and, oh, by the way, here's my tape.' Besides, I think that whole Hollywood networking thing is overrated anyhow."
It is when James can deliver the goods. From those rather nondescript beginnings -- playing in several bands around the Los Angeles area in addition to his hot-pie gig -- James has fashioned a lucrative career, earning a reputation as one of the most high-profile and bankable smooth jazz artists on the scene. His last two records, 1998's Sweet Thing and 1999's Body Language, both sold more than half a million copies. And with a national tour in support of his most recent disc, Ride, James looks to continue his winning streak.
"I'm having a lot of fun," he said. "I'm totally in love with the songs from the new album, and it's even better to play them live. That's not to take anything away from the stuff I did on my previous albums. It's just that you always want to progress and mature from one project to the next, and I'm really excited about where I am right now."
Part of that is due to what he considers a harder, more aggressive sound, one in tune with contemporary hip-hop and R&B. His list of collaborators on Ride is one indication. "Something Inside" was written by neosoul songbird Angie Stone and features vocals by Dave Hollister. Trina Broussard, who performed on the modern classic soundtrack to the movie Love Jones, sings on "Heaven," while Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots drums throughout. Producer Russell "The Dragon" Elevado brings it all home, adding groove expertise culled from working with artists like D'Angelo, Common, and Erykah Badu.
"A lot of it is a case of things coming around to where my heart is," says James. "Someone like [singer and Warner Bros. labelmate] Jaheim and Ahmir, when you hear them talk, they start talking about old-school stuff -- Al Green, Donny Hathaway, Earth Wind & Fire -- the stuff that I grew up with. Working with them gave me a chance to make a record that really let me dig into those root influences."
Unlike some instrumentalists James is proud of his pop background. Look at his résumé and you'll find a long list of soul and pop heavies: His first gig (post-pizza joint, that is) was with ex-Time frontman Morris Day, who hired him as a keyboard player in 1985. After James offered up his real talent ("I told him I really thought of myself more as a sax player"), Day gave him a showcase tune in the live show, building "Gigolos Get Lonely Too" around James's soulful reed work.
That tune was a springboard to a series of high-profile sideman gigs. In addition to playing with soul legends the Isley Brothers, James toured with Teena Marie, Vesta, Cherrelle, Ray Parker, Jr., and Sheena Easton. He also backed up jazzier pop artists like Randy Crawford and Bobby Caldwell.
After seven years of touring, James got the solo itch and started to put his experience to use on his own project. The result was his 1992 debut, Trust, and a subsequent deal with Warner Bros.
The sound of new disc Ride branches off from James's studio experience. Contemporary jazz is known for a laid-back studio sound. James doesn't chafe at the "sex music" label some have put on his sax-isms. But the low-key approach goes out the window onstage, where he concentrates on bringing the funk.
"That's because there's always been a difference between how you played on a record, where you're making something for someone to go home and chill with, and what you do live, when you're trying to play something that people will come out and party to," he explains. "The result is that sometimes you do something really fun and energetic onstage that doesn't necessarily come across on record. With this disc I wanted to get that kind of live sound. And you can hear it."
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