There are so many different influences in musical style these days that artists sometimes find the need to blend them together in order to make music that’s sonically appealing. But saxophonist Boney James believes there are really just two kinds of music: good and bad. His latest album, “The Beat” falls into the former category by cleverly combining the elements of R&B and Latin, and is already my choice for album of the year, in any genre.
From the moment I first heard this album, it immediately became clear that it would become the default soundtrack in my car wherever I went. It has elements of sound that make you want to move your feet, while others are best absorbed in the evening twilight, perhaps with a fine glass of wine. From the fresh version of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” that kicks off the album to the smoothness of “You Can Count On Me” and everything in between, the album is nothing short of brilliant. Repeated listenings find you choosing a different favorite song, something unheard of for an album in the day and age of instant gratification.
James pulls no punches in bringing out the heavy hitters for “The Beat”, including Rick Braun (“Batucada, The Beat”), Raheem DeVaughn (“Maker of Love”) and U.K. poet/musician The Floacist on “The Midas (This Is Why).”
James once envisioned himself in another career role, even having achieved a degree in History from UCLA. But that was before he decided that music was going to become his life. After four gold albums, three Grammy nominations and sales totaling more than 3 million records, it’s hard to argue that he’s made the right choice. With “The Beat”, he is certain to add to that total.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Boney James about the new album and more.
What was the spark that ignited “The Beat”?
I’ve always played around with the idea of one day doing a full-on Latin record. I began by thinking about how I could pull it off and decided to try working on an arrangement of one of my favorite Latin songs, Batucada (The Beat); which Sergio Mendes recorded. I’ve always loved the song and as I was working on it, I decided to try and take out the samba beat and put on more of an R&B back beat. It was so fresh sounding that it became an a-ha moment where I discovered that if I combined the Latin with my R&B groove, it would become this whole new thing. That’s what sparked the whole record.
Your fresh take on Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” follows a similar formula.
Stevie had done a similar thing with his version by mixing the Latin with the R&B. He’s an R&B singer, but he incorporated a lot of Latin percussion into that song. So I figured I would do my version of his version of that, and it became this whole third thing.
Tell me about how you connected with Raheem DeVaughn for the track “Maker of Love”.
I had written the music for that song and needed a vocal. Raheem was someone who was on the top of my list of artists I was hoping to work with someday. So just as I’m having that thought, I get an email from Twitter saying that Raheem DeVaughn had started following me. Out of the blue, he just followed me. I emailed him and asked if he’d like to do a collaboration. I wound up sending him the track and a few days later, he sends me back this whole finished thing. I thought I was just going to get a demo, but he wrote and sang it it all in one night. It was pretty awesome.
What’s your process for songwriting?
It happens in many different ways. Usually though, I’ll be sitting in my studio practicing my saxophone when I’ll get an idea. A little shred of melody or rhythm will pop into my head and I’ll go over to the keyboard and pound out a few measures of the idea. I’ll put it down and save the file and then later on, I’ll go back to it and it starts me on this incredible journey of taking a little nugget of an idea and turning it into a song. It’s a great experience and one of the best parts of what I do. Taking something that once didn’t exist and turning it into something real. I love it.
Where do you get your song titles?
What I like to do is listen to the song many times, close my eyes and try to imagine what kind of feeling I’m getting from it and then see if there’s some kind of poetic, clever way I can communicate that in a song title. ‘Mari’s Song’ is named for my wife. Her real name is Lily, but the family calls her Mari. It’s an old nickname she has.
For ‘Sunset Boulevard’ I was thinking about driving. It’s a great street in LA that goes from downtown all the way to the beach and I thought that was an apt title.
For “Acalento (Lullaby)”, I was already thinking lullaby, but since the album had a Latin element I thought to myself, “How do you say “Lullaby” in Portuguese?” I looked it up online and luckily, it was poetic sounding. [laughs]
How would you classify your style of music?
I don’t feel like I belong to any certain style of music. I just try to do my own thing and people respond to it. It’s really gratifying.
Growing up, you started out playing clarinet and then switched over to sax. What prompted the change?
There were so many clarinets in the band at the time and the teacher needed a sax player. I was one of the better clarinet players and my teacher thought it would be easier for me to transition over, so he sort of leaned on me to do it. Right away I loved it. It opened up more of a Pop and R&B repertoire for me, as opposed to the classical style that the clarinet had been.
Who were some of your influences?
I grew up listening to a lot of Motown: Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. As I picked up the horn, I started listening to more fusion like Grover Washington Jr., Weather Report and Chick Corea.
You have a history degree from UCLA. Was there a time where you considered pursuing another career?
I was very interested in history and originally thought I was going to be a lawyer. I thought it would be a good pre-law degree to have. About a year into college was when I discovered that music was my true love and decided to pursue it as a living. But since I had already started college, I figured I’d finish it.
What’s next for you?
I’m so proud of this new record that I’m going to dedicate the next 18 months of my life to getting out there and letting people know that it exists and making some noise.
For more on Boney James check out his official website by clicking here.