Smooth jazz. Soprano saxophone. Cover of pop or R&B ballad. Generally, that’s a recipe for blandness – a sound that’s trite.
However, make an arrangement that doesn’t merely turn a vocal into an instrumental and put some competent musicians behind it, and you can get something that sounds really nice.
So it is when Boney James brings in Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Lenny Castro on percussion and Brandon Coleman on keyboards – the combination for his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing.” It’s a charming opening to The Beat (Concord Music Group, 2013).
Things get even better when Dwayne “Smitty” Smith lays down a cool bass groove for “Sunset Boulevard,” an easygoing piece written by James and Coleman. Omari Williams steps in on drums, and Rob Bacon on guitar, with Coleman and Castro filling out the lineup. James plays the tenor sax on this track. As the title suggests, it’s like taking an afternoon drive along Sunset, with not a care in the world. Bacon adds a wah-wah effect during his brief middle solo.
James put this set together to express his love of Latin and R&B music. He says an initial inspiration was Sergio Mendes’ Batucada (The Beat), which he reimagines here as a funk tune.
For “Batacuda,” James enlists longtime pal and collaborator Rick Braun on trumpet. This selection is at home on the dance floor, a sightseeing tour or as soundtrack to a pickup game of basketball. James plays tenor and keyboards. Tim Carmon also steps on in keyboards and keyboard bass, with Alex Al on bass, Bacon and Castro. As they’ve done many times in their studio sessions and live performances, James and Braun trade licks, cranking up the intensity of an already lively tune.
James has been nominated for three Grammy Awards. He is a Soul Train winner for Best Jazz Album and has been honored with an NAACP Image Award nomination for Best Jazz Album. Nine of his albums have reached Number 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart, and two have reached the top 10 on the R&B Albums Chart, a rare feat for an instrumental artist. His early career was marked by several appearances on BET’s Jazz Central, as well as guest appearances on albums by Braun, Bob James and others.