Q&A with Boney James: A Smooth Jazz Icon’s ‘Solid’ Sound Stands the Test of Time

Boney James’ new album Solid is due out on April 17 on Concord Records. (Photo: Courtesy Describe The Fauna)

True to the title of his new album Solid, Boney James and his soulful, urban-driven silk and funk adventures have been among smooth jazz’s surest bets for nearly 30 years. After cutting his teeth as a sideman for artists like Morris Day, The Isley Brothers, Teena Marie, Bobby Caldwell and others, the saxophonist began his run as one of the genre’s most prolific, best-selling, incessantly touring and influential artists with his 1992 debut album Trust. He is a four-time Grammy nominee, has earned four RIAA Gold records and boasts career sales topping three million units. Transcending musical genres, his crossover to R&B includes two NAACP Award nominations, a Soul Train Award and being named one of the Top 3 Billboard Contemporary Jazz Artists of the Decade.

JAZZIZ: Overall, how do you think the music on Solid reflects who you are as a person and artist in 2020?

Boney James: It’s so difficult to be objective about my music. For me, it’s all about the positive energy of the album. I’m making music that feels like a respite away from the stresses of the world, which seem to get more intense every day. As it’s gotten crazier, music has been more important for me and the fans who listen to the albums and come to the shows. Like me, they reach out to music, which serves its role as sort of a salve and a respite from life. Even though I close with the more poignant song “Last Train Home,” I felt overall a lot of joy in creating solid and I think that translates to what you hear.

When you launched your solo career, what were your hopes and expectations for your solo career? Is it hard to believe that 28 years and 17 albums later you’re still going so strong?

I have a lot of gratitude for how my career has evolved and the support I have received from my fans. I feel as energetic about making music as I did back then, when I honestly thought my mom would be the only person who would buy that album! All along, I just wanted to be the guy who could keep pulling it off by making the best record I could each time out. I never feel like I’m just cranking out product. It’s always about making a unique artistic statement. My albums are always a reflection of my personal taste and thought I couldn’t have expected it back then, my commitment to creating what I consider a classic sound has ensured that these works stand the test of time. I have fun but also take my work seriously.

What does the word “solid” mean to you and why is it the best title for this album?

It was a feeling I had when I was making the album. It just popped into my head one day and I loved it. It means so many different things. For one thing, the groove is solid. I looked up various definitions, and one said that a relationship is solid when someone has your back and never lets you down. That’s such a warm and wonderful sentiment that speaks to both the vibe of the album and the relationship I have with my fans. We’ve always been there for each other. Then there’s feeling solid in a more romantic sense. The title fires on so many cylinders.

The press materials say that “Full Effect,” “Tonic” and “Solid” evolved from licks created by Kendall Gilder on the tour in support of your 2017 album Honestly. What did Kendall do, what struck you about those vibes and how did you use and develop his riffs into these songs?

Incredible ideas can emerge from sound check! People were turning things on and the guys were just noodling before we got into the songs. Kendall started playing these cool guitar chords. In each case, I said, “Play that again.” He repeated the riffs and I record them on my iPhone. I took them home, loaded them into my computer and wrote those songs directly from those original ideas. Sometimes the best tunes come when you’re not trying to write a hit song but just having fun with the music!

Another prominent collaborator is Jairus “J-Mo” Mozee, who has worked with Anderson Paak, Nicki Minaj and Anthony Hamilton. Had you ever worked with him before? What songs did he contribute to and how did your collaborations work?

He played in my band for a year or two a while back. We collaborated on “Last Train,” “Sundance,” “Just So” and the vocal tune with Kenny Lattimore, “Be Here.” That led to other collaborations. He would send me mp3’s of chords and grooves, like “How about this?” Sometimes I would hear a song in them and begin creating the melody and groove on top of what he sent. I would start with the keyboards and then replace them as we sent files back and forth.

Solid is being publicized as “A Reflection on Relationships and a Respite from a Stress Filled World.” How do its songs manifest those ideas?

As you listen, my hope is that the music will take you on a cool, sonically diverse journey away from the troubles of the day. A song like “Tonic” is so upbeat, happy, smiling and dancing, while “Luna” is ethereal and exotic. “Last Train” is kind of sad but also dreamy in a way. The title track has that solid, crunchy groove and Kenny’s song is all about relationships and being there for a romantic partner. There are so many different tendrils that I hope take you to a whole different reality, even if just for a few minutes.

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