Boney James has been playing saxophone since he was 10. And as he reaches his 55th birthday on Sept. 1 and his 32nd year as a touring musician, he still spends anywhere from three to six hours a day practicing his instrument when he’s not on tour.
One might think this far into his career, James wouldn’t need to devote so much time and effort to practice, but in a mid-August phone interview, he said he can’t afford to slack off.
“With the saxophone and probably many instruments, it’s not even so much as trying to get better per se, quote-unquote,” James said. “It’s a very physical thing, and like any sort of physical thing, you need to keep those muscles going in order to perform at the level that you want to. I’m sure if I didn’t practice all the time, I’m sure I would lose an edge. I would start to slide back. And that’s what I don’t want to do. But really, I’m really just trying to be more connected to the horn and find little nuances of tone. Think about a golfer with a swing, he’s always tinkering with it, trying to hit the ball a little farther or have a little more control over where it goes. And I think that’s a pretty good analogy for the saxophone.”
Right now is one of those times when James isn’t able to follow his practice routine, since he’s on the road through Sept. 10 before he taking a break ahead of another run of shows that begins in mid-October.
The upcoming dates, which include a stop at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1, at Bell Auditorium, continue a tour that’s been ongoing since spring 2015, when James released his current album, futuresoul.
That CD has been one of James’ more successful releases. It spent 11 weeks on top of Billboard magazine’s Contemporary Jazz Albums chart and ended 2015 as the top selling CD on that chart.
“It’s still riding pretty high on the charts,” James said of futuresoul. “A fourth single just came out, so that’s been really fun.
“It’s been a great (past) year,” he said. “I think this is actually my busiest year touring ever, and here I am coming up on 25 years as a solo artist. With the music business in the state that’s in, to have that growth has really been a wonderful thing.”
James, from the sound of things, is happy to still be touring behind his current album.
“This is essentially the futuresoul tour that we started doing last year when the record came out, although I’ve changed a couple of things from the catalog. But we’re definitely featuring some of my favorite songs off of the new record,” James said. “And I try to go back to the older records and just listen sometimes and see if there’s something I haven’t played for a long time or had completely forgotten about and see if it might fit into the show. So we’ve definitely moved some of those pieces around (in the song set) and the band and I are having a lot of fun playing the music.”
He’s also happy to have Bell Auditorium on his schedule.
“I think we have played this particular venue maybe three or four times in the past, but it’s been a few years so I’m really looking forward to coming back,” James said. “And I’m excited to be sharing the bill with Marsha Ambrosius (of Floetry fame), who’s a really great R&B singer who I’ve always admired. This is going to be like our third or fourth gig together this year, so she’s pretty awesome.”
The futuresoul album has not only been a commercial success for James (three previous singles – Drumline, Vinyl and A Little Attitude – all reached No. 1 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz Songs chart), he said he’s hoping the album has also given fans a bit of a different perspective on his musical interests.
Although he is known as a smooth jazz artist and brings a jazz element to his music, as it’s title suggests, the latest album finds James tapping into one of his other big influences – 1970s-era soul music – combining that feel with some modern production elements to create music that sounds current, but is rooted in classic soul. Songs like the funky Drumline, the sassy A Little Attitude and the sleek and easy-going Hand In Hand are easily as soulful as they are jazzy. And while James employs some synthetic percussion and modern sonic elements, the production doesn’t at all overshadow the melodies or James’ saxophone playing in the songs.
It’s not as though James went into futuresoul, the 12th solo studio album in a career that goes back to 1992 and has seen him sell more than 3 million albums, with the concept of a more soul-centric album in mind.
In fact, James enters into every writing period for an album with no agenda for his music. He simply sets up in his home studio and starts playing/practicing. At some point, James will play something – a melody line, a riff or some other part – that sticks. He’ll record that musical bit and over time will build it into a song. Eventually he’ll have enough songs that seem to belong together on an album.
James said he began taking that approach to songwriting while he was working as a sideman, first as a keyboardist for Morris Day, beginning in 1985 after Day’s split with his famous backing group, the Time. He also did sessions and/or shows with the Isley Brothers, Teena Marie, Randy Crawford and several other notable artists before going solo.
“Back in the old days when I was working as a sideman, a lot of the other sidemen that I knew were trying to get publishing deals and trying to write songs for pop artists and get songs placed,” James said. “It was something the younger musicians I knew were doing to try to build up another revenue stream. So I said I would try to do that, too.”
But he soon found that trying to tailor his songwriting to musical formats or specific artists wasn’t working.
“I wasn’t liking any of the songs I was writing. And they weren’t very good, and other people weren’t liking them either,” James said. “So I thought why don’t I try to write what I feel like writing and see what happens? And right away I liked those songs a lot better and other people liked them, too, And the next thing I knew I had an album’s worth of music and I was able to start my solo career. So it’s really just always been my M.O. to really just listen to the voices inside my head and the musical ideas I get and just be very natural and only explore ideas that I’m personally interested in and excited by, and not force it or feel like a job or anything like that. I just think that’s really the best thing for the music, and so far, so good. Just everything sounds so honest that way.”
It was while he was coming up with Drumline, the first song he wrote for futuresoul, that James started to hear the melding of soul music and modern production elements that became the album’s signature.
“Just the track itself had a very modern, crunchy sound to it, just sonically, just in terms of the actual tone of it,” James said. “It’s very compressed and has sort of dirty, processed sound to it. But it’s also, you know, it’s live drums and the chord structure is almost like a Junior Walker kind of thing. So it was just like a really interesting combination of factors, and that was maybe one of the first things that made me think that was the concept for the record.”