Creating your own sound is what we all strive for as sax players. Boney James has been doing just that since releasing his first solo album in 1992. His soulful playing bridges the pop, RnB and Jazz worlds and has earned him 4 Grammy nominations and a Soul Train Award.
Over the last 24 years Boney’s 15 albums have sold millions of copies, and his latest – “Futuresoul” has spent an impressive 11 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz charts.
I caught up with Boney to chat about his career, and the approach to practising and songwriting that has made him so successful.
NM: I read that you started out on clarinet?
BJ: I actually wanted to play trumpet! At my school everyone would sign up to learn an instrument, but when we went to the store to rent a trumpet, all they had were clarinets – so I took one home!
NM: Imagine if you’d got a trumpet – things could have been very different!
BJ: Exactly! Then two years later there were so many clarinets in the band that the teacher wanted a saxophone player. I guess I was the best clarinet player in the school and he had a saxophone so he gave it to me and forced me to switch.
NM: So what was the thing that got you switched on, that gave you the concept of the sound you wanted to go for?
BJ: As soon as I picked up the sax I felt connected to it, I just really enjoyed playing it. It was my favourite hobby right from the very beginning. I started on the saxophone when I was ten years old and I think for me it was a revelation. I had been learning clarinet and the repertoire for practising was very much classical at that time. With the saxophone it opened it up to more of a pop music concept.
I loved to listen to RnB music and popular music at the time and I was able to find sheet music for some of the songs on the radio, and to play those on the saxophone. And that was really where it started for me.
In terms of sound I don’t think I had many heroes till I was about 13. I started on alto and so everyone was steering me towards Charlie Parker. And while I really admired his technique and everything, be-bop was not something that ever really got me excited.
From an early age I really loved more groove orientated, RnB flavoured music. When I was 13 or 14 I heard Grover Washington Jnr for the first time and that was when I got inspired to throw myself more deeply into playing saxophone. I loved that combination of Jazz and RnB that was pretty fertile there in the mid seventies.
NM: That was a great time for that. Was there a particular album of Grover’s that you heard for the first time?
BJ: I think it was “Mister Magic” – did that come out about 1975? That was the first one I heard, then “Winelight” of course was a big inspiration. In that same period there was also Chuck Mangione, Wilton Felder and Ronnie Laws. The Crusaders were a big influence for me too.
NM: It’s interesting what you said about people steering you towards Charlie Parker, because that is a hard thing to get your head around at 13 or 14!
BJ: Exactly. But it’s interesting that now I’ve been playing for many years and have a lot more facility on the horn, I sometimes go back to things that mystified me when I was a kid.
NM: So when you heard the “Mister Magic” or “Winelight” album, did you try to copy that sound? Did you try and transcribe things?
BJ: I never wrote things down. I have terrible penmanship in general! So I would just try and memorise solos. I bought a tenor and soprano and started trying to play all three horns, that was something that was a big influence from Grover because he was so versatile on all three horns.
So I would just play along with records and try and figure out what they were doing.
NM: That was a great time in music where jazz and RnB were mixing. When you started to get out gigging with bands, did you find yourself focussing on that sound?
BJ: Yes, I got into a band and we were trying to play some of those songs, and also did some “Earth Wind and Fire,” and “Weather Report” tunes. There were so many bands at that time that were mixing jazz and RnB or pop music, – fusion was really king.
Then, we started to write our own songs, and that was how it developed. I got into a lot of bands in my teens, and I started to write songs, and get a record deal, we played concerts and all that stuff – it really started at a pretty early age.
NM: But you went off and did a history degree – is that right?
BJ: Yes – I thought I would put music to one side when I went to college. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to pursue it as a career. But I got into college and realised how much I missed playing music. So I came back to music, but I thought I would finish my degree because I had started it – and I am a tenacious person.
College was very difficult though because I wasn’t really into school at all. I was playing clubs and concerts at night and dragging myself into class in the morning. So in a really half-assed way I got my history degree which is collecting dust in my closet now!
NM: I wanted to ask you about your approach to writing, because I think you are different in the way you approach writing songs for your albums. Do you think that’s because of your different influences, with RnB and soul? Is it that you are starting from a groove basis when you are actually writing?
BJ: For a long time I worked as a sideman , backing singers and stuff like that. For seven years I earned my living in that way, working for people like the Isley Brothers, and Maurice Day, and Bobby Caldwell, and on the side I was trying to write songs to get a publishing deal.
A lot of musicians in town were doing that – trying to write songs for other people. But I just didn’t like any of the songs I was writing and I wasn’t having any success with it. So I thought, why don’t I just write songs for me, and just write stuff that pops into my head. I wanted to write without trying to sell it, but instead make completely honest music.
As soon as I started doing that people started liking my songs more and I was getting really positive feedback. So that’s when I started putting the music together that became my first record. And I got such positive energy back from people when I was writing the songs that just popped into my head – and luckily they were – that it reinforced me developing what is now my style.
I learned to trust my instincts when it came to things like that. Generally speaking I will just be practising sometimes and I’ll get an idea and I’ll sing it into a memo recorder or I’ll turn the computer on and I’ll start a session.
Back in the old days of course I didn’t have the technology that we have now – I had a workstation with a little four track recorder. But generally speaking I’ll just try and get the germ of an idea – often it’s on the saxophone or sometimes it’s a chord progression on the keyboard, or sometimes it’s a drum groove that I’ll sing or play into a drum machine. So it’s just a little scrap of an idea.
Then it’s just about having the discipline to keep going back and poking at it until you get the next idea and the next, and then it can start to turn into a song. The main thing is that it hopefully comes from some sort of honest inspiration that floats into your head from wherever ideas come from.
NM: That’s great, because then it’s your own music, something coming purely from you. That’s a really great piece of advice for people trying to come up with their own music.
BJ: I really find that the more honest the music is and the less you are concerned with what the audience is going to think, or the radio, or a label, or anybody, it actually makes a much better song. That’s always been my experience.
NM: You’ve been doing that for a long time, but I think it holds true more these days when people need to be more responsible for building their own audiences.
BJ: I think I was very fortunate that my aesthetic aligned with what the market place was looking for at the right time in history. So that was just luck. There were a lot of guys who were more into bebop or straight ahead jazz who would try and fit themselves into a more contemporary style and you could tell that it didn’t feel natural to them, whereas for me it was just very natural.
NM: I really like the way you craft your entire live show with loads of energy onstage. You build a fantastic rapport with the audience. Is that something you work on a lot before a tour?
BJ: A lot of that stuff starts off as spontaneous – and sometimes something that has happened spontaneously on stage gets a response, so you do it again the next time. So it does develop over time, in a way. For the most part though I’m really just trying to have fun up there. I just let the music dictate what’s going on with my body – I do like to dance and I enjoy being on stage – the synergy you get from the band and the audience – it’s so much fun and it really is one of my favourite things to do. I think my overall theme is to let the sincere emotion of being on stage and playing my music shine through.
I was fortunate in having spent all that time as a sideman where I was able to watch all those people I admired on stage. I could see them from behind the scenes, and see what was working. I definitely want to involve the audience and put on a show and keep them coming back!
NM: When it comes to practising what sort of things do you like to focus on?
BJ: A lot of it is all about tone for me, and keeping everything centred. I do a lot of long tones, and intervals. I spend a lot of time looking for reeds! When I’m recording and performing for shows I am very particular about the reed I have on each horn. With three horns and a lot of work, a lot of hours are spent looking for good reeds.
NM: Don’t we all spend a lot of time doing that! Do you ever try synthetic reeds or the Rico Plasticover?
BJ: I use the plasticover reeds for soprano and alto but not for tenor. I find they last longer than regular reeds, but on my tenor it was just the tone – I was never able to get it right. For some reason it just doesn’t connect. I find they certainly are more instantly playable, you don’t need to break them in quite so much.
So in terms of practising, I spend a lot of time looking for reeds – hours and hours! Then once I find one, I go through some books. I’ve had some fun taking out some of my old classical exercise books recently and have been playing the Klosé book again. I’m looking for something to keep my fingers loose but mainly it’s about tone for me, and pitch, and lots of long tones. I also try to keep up my work on the altissimo.
I play almost every day – six days a week generally. I try to take Sunday off. But I spend three to six hours a day practising, unless I’m on the road.
NM: Is a big part of your practice working on melodies and trying to come up with ideas for tunes? Is songwriting part of your practice time?
BJ: I had a teacher who said “some days it’s good to just pick up your horn and play” and generally those are the days when I find some sort of melody. Sometimes working on some part of the horn that doesn’t feel as open as it should, working on intervals, that’s when I’ll get a melody idea. That’s a skill in itself, recognising when you’ve hit on something that could be a song.
Quite often songs that have been on my records have been playing around and stopping and saying, “what was that? Let me put that down on tape,” and then I see what chords might go with that. Then it’s, “what’s the arrangement?” – the next thing you know you have a hit song!
NM: I can really understand that, when you’re taking an idea, and turning it around, moving it into different keys – it really gets your brain going!
I really like that track “Either Way” on your “Future Soul” album – I love the melody line – it has such a strange shape. Did you write that melody line?
BJ: I did, I wrote the melody, and I wrote the music, I did the arrangement, I played all the keyboards and everything. I sang the melody as a sort of “la la la” and I put that down on tape and I gave it to Stokely who ended up writing the lyrics and he wrote it exactly as I had done the melody.
I had even done the harmonies as “la la la” in the chorus. I said “this is what I think,” and he said “I can work with that.”
Generally speaking when I’ve worked with a vocalist collaborator I’ll send them a melody idea and they will change it, but he wrote lyrics directly to my melody and I think that’s why it is so strange. It’s sort of a saxy melody but done as a vocal.
NM: A difficult melody to sing I would imagine?
BJ: Yes, I’ve had some guest people come in and sing it instead of Stokely and they don’t do it quite as well as he does!
NM: So when it comes to songwriting, you said with this track you put down everything – is that often the way it is for you? Coming up with an idea then actually layering it all up?
BJ: Yes that’s pretty much it. I like to start with my idea, that often I will go and have another keyboard player replace what I did, or have a real bass player replace what I did, I’ll take out the drum program and have real drums, I’ll get into the studio and turn it more into a record. But other times, like “Either Way”, it’s almost entirely me, and it’s like, “okay, it sounds perfect just like that.” I think with that song all I did was put guitar and percussion over the track that I did at home.
NM: How brilliant is it that these days we can do all that ourselves. And you can also do things remotely – I read a story that you connected with Stokely over Twitter- is that right?
BJ: Yes, and then I just sent him a mix of the session, he sent me his vocal files back and I imported them into my session – it was all done over the internet.
NM: When I’ve listened to your recordings it always sounds quite intimate, as though you are playing at quite a low volume. And it was the same when you were performing live, though there was loads of energy there. Is that right?
BJ: I just prefer the sound of a saxophone when you are not putting too much air through it. I’ve never been a screamer, though there are moments when that’s necessary, on records or on stage, there are times when you put in more air. But I just prefer the sound of the horn when it’s a little more softly played. Generally I’m playing quite a lot louder when I’m on stage than I am on the records. I’m just trying to respond to the song that I’ve written and put the right amount of air in for that moment.
NM: It works great on the recording too because it sounds really intimate, it pulls you in.
BJ: I’m always shying away from a harsh, mid-range sound. I find when I’m playing softer I can get that warmth that I’m looking for.
NM: What’s the plans for the coming year?
BJ: I’ve got a lot more concerts coming up. I’m still promoting the new record. Probably in the next month or two I’m going to get the urge to see what’s next creatively, and maybe start writing the next record. I still have a lot of shows booked – you have to go around to each town and spread the word about the record, since there aren’t many record stores any more.
NM: You’re a busy guy – you must be on the road quite a lot?
BJ: Yes it seems as though just about every week we’re doing 3 or 4 shows. It’s been a great year and I love playing live. I don’t mind the travelling so much as long as I get to play a show when I get there! I’m very grateful and the record is still doing really well in the charts here so we need to try and keep it going for as long as we can!
Soprano: Vintage Buescher (1928) / Aaron Drake “New Era” mouthpiece / Rico Plasticover 2.5 Reeds
BJ: I bought a Conn recently but I’m not as comfortable on it so I’ve gone back to the Buescher and I love it. I keep looking at the Mark VI sopranos and every now and again I’ll try one, but I just don’t like the tone as much as the horn that I have. It’s really old but it looks beautiful.
Alto: Selmer Mark VI / Aaron Drake “Jazz” mouthpiece / Rico Plasticover 2.5 Reeds
Tenor: Selmer Mark VI / Aaron Drake “Contemporary” mouthpiece / Rico Jazz Select 2 Soft Reeds
More info and tour dates: http://www.boneyjames.com