Go ahead: Call Boney James “old school.” The multi-platinum saxophonist entered music in the 80s, capsule touring with The Isley Brothers, order Morris Day, Teena Marie and others, and he broke out as a solo force in 1992. With 12 albums to his credit – eight of which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart – no one could blame him for taking fewer risks these days. But Boney has always sought ways to stretch his talent and to connect with fans.
Then a year ago, he suffered an auto accident that broke his jaw and teeth, and threatened his ability to play again. As he slowly healed, he reevaluated his career, and emerged under a new record label with his most personal album to date, Contact.
“The title, in one sense, refers to me reaching across genres and creating music that I believe is relevant and fresh,” Boney says. “I am just a saxophone player whose music has several different influences. Jazz is only one of them.”
“Contact” boasts vocal guest appearances from Grammy- and Tony-Award winner Heather Headley; platinum-selling singer and former Destiny’s Child member LeToya Luckett; and R&B stars Mario, and Donnell Jones.
He is currently crossing the country for TV and radio performances and appearances. “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.”
Boney will appear June 24 at the Hampton Jazz Fest.
Fans are excited to see you at the Hampton Jazz Fest. What can we expect to see in this show?
I’m excited too. I think this might be my third or fourth time. There’s an incredible line-up this year. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve got a couple of great new band members that also sing really well. I’ve got a female guitar player for the first time. She’s got a cool look and a great vibe on stage. Her name’s Angie Swan. A keyboard player named Andy Brown that’s just a real gospel player and singer as well. There’s a lot of new material in the show; new songs and also songs I haven’t been playing for many years. It’s definitely not the same show we’ve been bringing on the road. It’s been really exciting.
It’s getting harder to pick the songs to play live because they’re adding up. We’re definitely featuring new songs from the record but when I tell the audience that we’re going to play some old songs as well, they all cheer, because they want to hear their favorites. I don’t really know what people’s favorites are, I can only guess.
What a burden to bear: “too many hits…”
I think I actually saw someone on stage once say, ‘Too many hits, too little time.’ I only say that as a joke because I don’t have the big pop hits. But people definitely have their favorites.
Would you say there was one person who was behind your break into solo stardom?
I was working for Bobby Caldwell’s band and getting frustrated being a sideman and wanting to try to make my own solo record when I met Paul Brown, who was an aspiring producer. He ended up making my first record which is really what started my whole career as a solo artist. It was really gratuitous for both of us. We clicked on a creative level. Those first few records we made together put us both on the map. I started to become more involved in the production and eventually split off from him because I felt at that point that I knew what I wanted the records to sound like and I knew how to make that happen. I do really love having complete creative control now. But I’m super grateful to Paul for noticing that I had something unique.
We lost Teena Marie last December. You were a sideman with her in the 80s.
Yeah, I was. That was a wonderful experience. She was one of the people I was able to learn a lot from in terms of passion and showmanship on stage. She just totally committed when she was out there. I try and follow that example.
How are you recovering from last year’s auto accident?
I’m doing much better, thank you. It was kind of a drag, but luckily, it’s a rapidly fading memory and everything is pretty much back to normal. There were a couple months I couldn’t play at all, because I hurt my mouth pretty bad and that’s not so good for a saxophone player. The teeth that I use to hold the mouthpiece were pretty much knocked out. I was wondering how it was going to go. It was scary but I was also just super grateful that I wasn’t killed. Luckily it’s worked out okay. I still have my teeth and I can play. In a way, it’s been a blessing because it fills you with joy and gratitude to be alive. I’m just super grateful to people who appreciate my music. In this day and age, it’s challenging to reach people. It’s just a real personal thing. My main thing is gratitude.