Since making his leader debut with 1992's Trust, saxophonist and composer Boney James has consistently placed in the Top Three spots on the contemporary jazz charts, though his sound is grittier and more muscular than the genre usually embodies. After multiple Grammy nominations and gold-certified albums, along with millions of sales, James' unique yet welcoming meld of soul-jazz, R&B, funk, and pop, and a high-energy live show have come to define the sound of 21st century contemporary jazz. Albums such as 1999's Body Language, 2004's Pure, and 2015's Futuresoul have influenced an entire generation of artists. Interestingly, the more James doubles down on his emotionally resonant tone and his canny, hooky, detailed compositions, the more successful he is. 2017's Honestly peaked at number one on the Top Jazz Albums and Contemporary Jazz Albums charts.
Born James Oppenheim, he grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and studied clarinet when he was eight, switching to saxophone two years later; his playing of the instrument began to show the heavy influence of Grover Washington, Jr. When he was 15, his family moved to Los Angeles. James was soon playing in a fusion band (Line One) that was strong enough to open for Flora Purim and the Yellowjackets. After a year attending UC Berkeley, he transferred to UCLA so he could continue playing with the band. He earned a degree in history but became a full-time musician after graduation, doubling on keyboards.
In 1985, James went on the road as a keyboardist with Morris Day, and eventually convinced Day that he should be playing saxophone instead. He spent four years with Day and became an in-demand guest musician on tenor, alto, soprano, and flute, playing with Randy Crawford, Sheena Easton, the Isley Brothers, Bobby Caldwell, and others. (He picked up his nickname while on tour with Crawford; after mentioning to a keyboardist that he was running out of food money, the musician replied that if he ate any less, he'd have to be called Boney James.)
The saxophonist made his debut as a leader with Trust in 1992 (Spindletop), which earned him a contract with Warner Bros. two years later. While there, he recorded many popular dates, including Backbone, Seduction, Boney's Funky Christmas, Sweet Thing, Shake It Up, Ride, and Pure. In 2006, James made the move to Concord Records and released Shine, then in 2009, Send One Your Love. One year later, while driving home after an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, James was rear-ended by another vehicle. The accident totaled his car and left him with a fractured jaw and two missing teeth, injuries that could have ended his playing career. He recuperated, however, and in 2011 he released Contact, an album whose title referred to the profound effect the accident had on his life and career.
James re-signed with Concord in 2012. One year later, he released The Beat, an album that combined his love of R&B and Latin music. The set included guest appearances from Raheem DeVaughn and Floacist. James continued to mine his own musical history and dug further back to '80s and '90s R&B, hip-hop, and his contemporary jazz roots for Futuresoul. Released in 2015, it featured a smaller core of studio players and a guest spot from trumpeter Marquis Hill. The album debuted at number one on contemporary jazz charts and by the end of the year, it hit the top spot on the standard jazz albums chart. James continued to strip things down for 2017's Honestly, his 16th album. He produced the record and co-wrote all but one track, an interpretation of the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael classic "Skylark." He enlisted vocalist and co-writers Avery Sunshine for the title cut (and charting Urban Adult single) and Eric Roberson for "If I Can't Hold You." His first instrumental single, "Tick Tock," was one of four songs co-written and co-produced with Jairus Mozee (Anthony Hamilton, Robin Thicke), with horn charts by Jerry Hey (Michael Jackson). Honestly was issued by Concord in early September. It registered three hit singles: the Top 20 title track featuring Avery Sunshine, "On the Prowl," which landed in the Top Five on Smooth Jazz and Smooth AC Charts, and the chart-topping "Tick Tock." The album peaked at number one on the Contemporary Jazz Albums chart and remained in the top spot for four weeks.
After intensive touring and a well-deserved break, James and band re-entered the studio in 2019 armed with 11 self-penned compositions, including three — "Full Effect," "Tonic," and the title cut — that he built from licks played at soundcheck by touring guitarist Kendall Gilder on tour. Priming the pump with the single "Be Here" with Kenny Lattimore providing vocals, it was issued as the first of four pre-release singles and charted inside the Top 30 on the Adult R&B Songs chart. Its accompanying James-produced album titled Solid was released in June of 2020. ~ Scott Yanow