Whatever one thinks of “smooth jazz,” there are certain mainstay artists working in that general realm whose ongoing sales and touring success show that even without much terrestrial-radio support these days, they still have a passionate audience. With three million units sold and four Grammy nominations earned for his melodic, easy-flowing way on tenor and soprano saxophones, Boney James is one of the genre’s top attractions. He enjoys experimenting with the latest production technology and has collaborated with a number of contemporary R&B stalwarts over the years. On his latest outing, Futuresoul, his collaborators include soul singer Dwele and writer/producer Jairus Mozee, whose credits include work with Anthony Hamilton and Robin Thicke. James has released 15 albums during the last 23 years. His style is marked by an infectious, just-grooving-enough vibe, and he always seems to push the envelope just enough to set new smooth-jazz standards.
On Futuresoul’s 10 tracks, he blends old-school R&B concepts with sonic textures based on his interest in “now” soul stars like Tinashe, Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding — perhaps most successfully on the lush, mid-tempo ballad “Vinyl,” the catchy chorus of which includes a filtered snippet of The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round.” James and Mozee surround the spirited melody of the album-opening “Drumline” with a funk groove, atmospheric sounds and snazzy horn textures. Balancing out that mid-tempo energy are two slow numbers: the sensual, soprano-driven “Watchu Gon’ Do About It?” and the moody, hypnotic “Hand in Hand.”
James eases beautifully out of his comfort zone on the closer, “Far From Home,” a dark, haunting meditation featuring trumpeter Marquis Hill. Of course, hardcore James fans will much prefer “A Little Attitude,” a track that speaks volumes about the saxophonist’s Grover Washington-inspired charms, which, more than two decades along, still enchant. —Jonathan Widran