Lights low. Candles burning. The wine chills on ice. It is time for love.
And all that is needed to complete the mood is the music of Boney James, whose soulful, warmly seductive saxophone style has catapulted him to the top of the smooth jazz genre. His latest album (and ninth release overall) is Pure, a silky, romantic set enlivened with colorful textures and fine, focused playing from James. It's the first album the widely popular saxophonist produced himself.
"It was something I had done on my Christmas record in '97, but I was [doing] more co-producing," says James, who's calling from his home studio in Los Angeles. The saxophonist plays the Capital Jazz Fest Saturday. "I became better at it. Producing is a complicated job with a lot involved. But it's a creative job, too. I wondered how pure it could be, which is where the idea for the album came from."
Pure doesn't stray too far from the albums James has done before. The grooves are still slick, urban and slightly funky overlaid with subtle percussion, guitars and live bass lines. James improvises enough to keep the music in the true spirit of jazz. He never falls into the annoying grandstanding of, say, Kenny G. And though his records can be a bit too polished at times, James' playing retains a sense of earthy soulfulness reminiscent of the style that made Grover Washington Jr. famous in the 1970s.
Pure, guest starring the great Joe Sample, Philly neo-soul wonder Bilal and Detroit singer-songwriter Dwele, is as engagingly straight-forward as smooth jazz gets.
"Paul Brown [James' old producer] was more into that glossy sound of smooth jazz," says the New York-raised artist. "I was more interested in creating a sound closer to my live sound. And I worked with Serban Ghenea, who has mixed albums by the Neptunes, Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. So that has something to do with the overall sound of Pure."
With three gold albums, including 1998's satisfying Sweet Thing, the man born James Oppenheim in Lowell, Mass., has amassed a solid and loyal following since the release of Trust, his 1992 debut. Before becoming a star on the smooth jazz scene, James, a history graduate of U.C.L.A., had established a solid reputation as a skilled session player. He played the sax, keyboards or flute on records by Randy Crawford, Bobby Caldwell, the Isley Brothers and toured for a while with the dynamic showman Morris Day.
"I grew up listening to what we call smooth jazz today," James says. "There were the Crusaders and there was Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers. I think my music is like an extension of all that. I'm bringing my experience in the world to my music and trying to be honest. All the experiences shape who you are as an artist."
As for the undeniable romantic element of his sound, James finds inspiration in his 20-year marriage to actress Lily Mariye, who for seven seasons has played nurse Lily Jarvik on the NBC series ER.
"I was delivering pizzas when we met, and she was taking tickets at the Comedy Store," James says, chuckling at the memory. "We were both just trying to make it then. I guess we've come a long way."
Check out Boney James at the Capital Jazz Fest at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, Saturday at noon. Joe Sample, Ledisi, Lee Ritenour and others appear on the same bill. The jazz fest runs tomorrow through Sunday. Tickets are $39.50-$124.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.