Boney James brings sax appeal to Jazz in the Gardens

Boney James is a perfect fit for the Jazz in the Gardens festival. He’s a bad-ass sax player, his new album has a distinctive Latin feel to it, and he loves the festival’s mix of contemporary R&B with traditional jazz.

And he doesn’t play smooth jazz. Yes, despite the long curly hair, he’s not Kenny G.

All joking aside, James is excited to take the stage Saturday in support of his latest album, “The Beat,” which was inspired by a song by jazz great Sergio Mendes. In a review, the New York Times praised James’ “relaxed charisma” and compared him to pioneer Grover Washington Jr.

James – born James Oppenheim – talked about the new album, how he deals with the fallacious comparisons to Kenny G, and how he got his nickname.

What drew you to this festival?
I think I played the very first festival however many years ago that was – if not the first, then the second. And it was a blast – it’s just an incredible collection of artists that they have, really diverse. And blending the jazz and the R&B, which is what I’m all about, too, so I’m really glad to be taking part.

Anyone else on the bill you’re exciting to see?
Anthony Hamilton – I’m a huge fan of his, and Maze with Frankie Beverly. I’m a fan of all the artists that are gonna be there this year, quite honestly – it’s a great lineup.

So what can we expect from your set?
I’m still promoting my most recent record, which is “The Beat,” which came out about seven months ago, but it’s still Top 5 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart. It spent 10 weeks at No. 1, and was nominated for a Soul Train Award, a Grammy and an Image Award. So the record’s got some legs, and I was really proud of it when I turned it in, and I’m just glad it’s getting this great reception. So I’m playing a lot of songs off the new record, and I’m also trying to play as many of everybody’s favorites from the other records that I can, so I don’t piss anybody off [laughs].

What were you going for with “The Beat” style-wise?
This record is a little bit of a Latin/R&B mashup, the whole record. And it was really just because I was experimenting with the different kinds of grooves that I like, and kind a messing around, and just having fun one day in the studio, and I came up with this version of a Sergio Mendes song, which is called “Batucada,” which means “the beat” in Portuguese. And I changed it from this samba beat to more of an R&B groove, and I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of a cool thing,” and then I started writing some songs that were in that mode. And I also took some straight-up R&B tracks that I had and added more percussion to them. So the whole thing just became like a blurring of the lines between these two kinds of grooves.

The Latin beats will go over well down here, definitely.
[Laughs] I think so, yeah.

What drew you to the saxophone in the first place?
It was just a fluke, really, like so much in my life, I just fell into it. I started playing clarinet when I was 8, and this was back in the day when everybody learned to play an instrument in elementary school. And there were so many clarinet players in the band two years later that the teacher sort of leaned on me to switch to the sax because I guess I had the most talent on the clarinet. And he convinced me that I could play in the stage band when I got to high school if I played the saxophone, and they had these cool satin jackets, so I was like, “I better switch!” It was like a whim when I was a young kid, but I loved it right away. And I loved to listen to the radio, R&B music in particular, and there were a lot of bands at that time, like Ohio Players and Kool & The Gang, that had horn sections in them. And then I heard Grover Washington Jr. a couple years after that, and he was combining the R&B and the jazz, too, back in the mid-‘70s. So just all of those things together really turned me on to making music in general – it was like a big, wonderful time to be coming up playing the saxophone in the mid-‘70s.

And you also play the keyboards, right?
Yeah, I toured for many years as a sideman playing keyboards and sax – I toured with Morris Day, and the Isley Brothers and Fergie and all these different artists before I was able to make my first record. I was out there paying my dues. I don’t play keyboards on my records, but I write most of my songs on the keyboards.

You’re not smooth jazz, but do people who don’t know any better compare you to Kenny G, and do you get sick of it?
Well, it was a lot worse when I first started out, because people didn’t really know me and know my sound, and here was another curly, long-haired sax player, you know? But I’ve been doing it for over 20 years now, and I think I have my own identity, musically. Actually, I’m selling more records than him now, so that’s a beautiful thing [laughs]. Although I don’t think I have his bank.

But I think that was always a very superficial comparison. I mean, if you listen to the records, two seconds and you know it’s a whole ‘nother sound. He’s much more of a pop soprano guy, and I’m more of a gritty, hopefully, tenor guy. But you know, people make their opinions, and sometimes you can’t change anybody’s mind. I just always try to keep my head down and make my music, and trust that people are gonna understand where it’s coming from.

How did you get your nickname?
This is just a joke name I got on the road. It was about 1986 and I was a sideman playing with Randy Crawford at the time, the singer from The Crusaders. And she was really popular in Scandinavia so we were in Oslo, Norway. And everything costs a fortune over there, and we were getting some per diem for expenses, but it just wasn’t enough, so I said to the keyboard player, “I have enough money, I just won’t eat for the next couple of days,” as a joke. And he said, “Oh, shoot, you’ll get all skinny, and I’ll have to start calling you Boney James or something.”

And I said, “Man, do not call me Boney James” [laughs]. That’s how you get a nickname.

How often do you get to Miami, and what do you think of it?
Not that often – since the last time we were at Jazz in the Gardens, I’ve probably only played there two or three times. So I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great town, a beautiful town – I mean, I live in California, but you guys have the great weather and beautiful ocean and beaches there, and like you said, the great musical energy happening down there, so I can’t wait to come down.