James naturally blends sounds with 'The Beat'

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Boney James is among the featured artists at this year's Jazz & Rib Fest, presented by the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department Friday-Sunday, July 19-21 on the Arena District riverfront. Admission is free. James plays the American Electric Power Stage at 9:30 p.m. Friday.
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Wednesday July 17, 2013 4:08 PM

Yes, this feature and sax-man Boney James' new record are both titled The Beat. Sadly, for us anyway, this is totally coincidental.

It also has no bearing on our positive reaction to the record, which is a slick fusion of jazz, R&B/urban and Latin grooves. This sort of fusion is nothing new, of course, but it comes so naturally to James.

"(Fusion) is the school I came up in. It was what was happening in the '70s."

James' predisposition toward R&B/funk/soul began at an early age, when Motown and artists such as Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire were his favorites. When he took up the saxophone, his ears were drawn to the likes of Grover Washington and The Crusaders, "guys who were mixing R&B with the sax."

After two years on clarinet in the school band, James started on the saxophone when he was 10 years old. He played throughout his years in public school in New Rochelle, N.Y., but opted to study history at UCLA, deciding a career in music wasn't a realistic option. After graduation, he decided to give it a go in the music industry.

"I loved music, so I figured I should at least try. It was something I was very passionate about."

He landed gigs as a sideman, joining bands backing Morris Day (The Time), the Isley Brothers, Teena Marie and Randy Crawford (during which time a fellow Crawford band member bestowed a young and skinny James Oppenheim with a nickname that stuck). It was a couple years later, while James was playing with singer Bobby Caldwell's band, that he got his break. Producer/engineer Paul Brown, who was mixing Caldwell's live shows, approached James about making a record.

"He liked my playing. It was one of many lucky breaks I've had," James said.

This led to James' first record, Trust, which was released in 1992. It was a time of growth and popularity for jazz and instrumental music, and James made hay with six more records before the decade was out.

In 2000, James recorded Shake It Up with trumpeter Rick Braun, with whom he maintains a healthy working relationship to this day (Braun was among the guest artists on The Beat).

The heightened Latin influence on James' new record was unplanned. "I was just composing for fun. I was between labels, and had no real expectations, no agenda. I was following this creative thread, and it had this real fresh energy."

The Beat features eight James compositions and two arrangements (covers of Sergio Mendes' Latin Batucada (The Beat) with Rick Braun, and Stevie Wonder's Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing.)

James' originals spin from "little scraps of ideas that flow out, some of which turn into actual songs," he joked.

"Generally, when I hear a melody in my head, it will be on the sax. I usually pick up the tenor (saxophone) first. That instrument is my voice."

James said he follows an "internal compass" as to whether a tune remains tenor sax-led or if another instrument or a guest singer is called for.

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