On Friday night, the Akron Civic Theatre will be filled with toe-tapping grooves and funk-soul from contemporary jazz saxophonist Boney James and his band.
James Oppenheim got the nickname “Boney” in the 1980s, when he was a fresh-faced backup musician for Morris Day, the Isley Brothers, Bobby Caldwell and others. James is touring behind his album “Honestly,” released on his birthday in 2017. It's his 11th chart-topping album in a row, spending four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart.
Steeped in the slinky R&B sounds he grew up on, the album produced three number one singles on “smooth adult contemporary” and two tunes that made the R&B chart, which James remarked that “for a sax player in this day and age is pretty epic.”
He recorded, produced and played much of the mix of contemporary and throwback sounds in his backyard studio, but it also features contributions from Avery Sunshine — who sang and wrote the lyrics for the title track, a Quiet Storm-ready contemporary soul ballad — and indie R&B master Eric Roberson, on the simmering “If I Can’t Hold You.” “Honestly,” at a svelte 10 tracks and 42 minutes, is made to be heard in one sitting, another nod to the old-school way of making music.
“I like records that you're going to put on and listen to all the way through,” James said from a tour stop in Annapolis, Maryland. “I think that’s a good amount of time so you can listen to the record from start to finish. That’s the way I like to make the record, like it’s one whole statement. I know most people now, they put it on, and it’s on random or they just stream the one song they like. But I’m still trying to make records.”
Like many artists in the fuzzily defined genre, James, 57, bristles a bit at the “smooth jazz” designation, often used derisively by non-fans of the groove-heavy, melodic, R&B-based style of mostly instrumental music. When terrestrial radio was still queen, the “smooth jazz/contemporary jazz” format was a safe bet, with most midsize and major markets across the country having at least one station dedicated to the sound. In 2019 most of those stations have switched formats, making Cleveland/Akron’s popular 107.3-FM The Wave a rarity.
James called The Wave “one of the very last terrestrial stations playing this kind of music, whatever it is we’re calling it. I like to call it 'Boney James music' and not get into those other labels.” He appreciates its continued survival and success, but he’s doing just fine.
“It’s a beautiful thing. I gotta say the love for the music that I’m making does not seem to have dissipated ... even as the business has changed. I’m still selling records and people are still coming to the shows. So it’s all good from where I’m standing, but that area you're living in, there are certainly a lot of fans there and I’m very grateful for that,” he said.
“My fans still like to buy records, they’re a little more old school like I am,” he added, noting that when he first started, there were still record stores “on every corner.”
James grew up in New Rochelle, New York, where he was introduced to the sound that melded jazz, R&B and fusion.
“I loved this particular type of music — instrumental music contemporary jazz is how I think of it, or R&B instrumental music — since I was a kid when I first heard Grover Washington Jr. doing it in 1975, and Ronnie Laws and the Crusaders and George Benson and David Sanborn and all the artists from that wonderful era,” he said.
“That was back when radio stations would play all different kinds of music all at the same time. It wasn’t so format-specific. I’ve always just really responded to it. It’s a great combination of improvisation and song and groove and just crossing genres.”
Though he’s been touring for more than year, James says “It’s wonderful. I love it. There’s really nothing I’d rather be doing.” He has started working on his next album and is thankful he gets to do the things he loves most.
“It’s pretty wonderful, the life I’ve had so far. It’s hard to believe that it’s actually happening.”
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.