Of all the sins committed by the music industry since the turn of the millennium, the severing of standards followed by the systematic regurgitation of Reagan era production values might be the most unforgivable.
What the men behind the curtain have done to popular music is an insult to everything American innovation used to stand for. Instead of a climate that strives for diversity from all sides, what we have is a mainstream in which homogeneity and trend-hopping have become de rigueur. What we have is an oligarchical stronghold where a select few are allowed to shape the future of what the rest of us listen to. Old material that was never THAT great to begin with is being swathed in glossy new digs and marketed to young people who have neither the platform nor the desire the annihilate the façade.
Groups such as Walk the Moon, Big Data, Neon Trees and the like are cashing in on the not-so-distant past while never really displaying anything outside of an arbitrary affinity for the work they’re borrowing from. Therein lies the problem, because, while much of their music is catchy, it’s hard enough to get jazzed up about retreads, let alone those that feel artificially conceived. There’s a laundry list of reasons as to why record sales have plummeted through the years, but perhaps the situation would be a little brighter if consumers had more options worthy of their money.
Saxophonist Boney James has carved out a brilliant career amid this mess and his latest album, “futuresoul,” is proof positive that there’s no substitute for true artistry. It’s a throwback in feel only, as James displays his influences proudly yet maximizes his talent to make every song sound freshly original. Unlike so many of today’s mainstream charlatans, he feels this music from the inside out and uses his soulful sway to cut straight through the heart of the listener.
I caught up with Boney recently to preview his sold-out date at Buffalo State’s Rockwell Hall on May 4 and, if you were among those lucky to snag a seat, you’re in for a late spring treat. What follows is an abridged version of our chat.
MNOD: What were you trying to achieve with your latest record “futuresoul?”
Boney James: Whenever I get into the process of making a new record, I’m just focusing on writing good songs. I see where the inspiration takes me. As I was getting deeper into the record and had a few songs I remember sitting back and thinking, “Wow! This really sounds like modern soul music.” It had a real retro quality to it, but was also modern in terms of its production. That’s when the title and theme, futuresoul, just popped into my head.
MNOD: You’ve stated that contemporary artists such as Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding have had an impact on you. What specifically did you draw from their work that influenced your own?
BJ: I just loved the sound of a lot of it. People have gotten so adept at manipulating various effects and sounds in the studio that it essentially sounds like retro soul music in a lot of ways. Whether it’s through Pro Tools or not, the production work is what initially grabbed me, because I wanted my own music to have the same retro feel to it.
MNOD: You featured rising trumpet star Marquis Hill on the track “Far From Home.” What was it about his style that blended so well with your own?
BJ: I’ve been around a lot of jazz guys and Marquis is just an amazing player. He contributed these beautiful solo fills on the song that turned out really well once the record was completed.
MNOD: How does performing this material live help to deepen the connection between you and the audience?
BJ: I’m always putting new things into the show and this album contains some of my favorite songs I’ve written. New music is always exciting, because I get to see how the crowd reacts and, so far, their reaction has been great. It’s a high energy and interactive show that’s always a lot of fun. Most of my band has been with me for many years and they also played on the album, so we also go back into the catalog for some songs we haven’t played in a while.
MNOD: Who were some of your influences growing up?
BJ: Artists such as Grover Washington Jr., Earth Wind and Fire, and Stevie Wonder were important for me, because I was really into the use of the saxophone within an R&B context. They really peaked my interest early on, because I really fell in love with music during the mid-1970s and that era has come to define where my current tastes are at. Even a lot of kids today are still interested in the music that came out in that era. It’s timeless music and that’s a part of the “futuresoul” concept.
MNOD: How did your experience playing artists such as Morris Day and the Isley Brothers impact your approach later on?
BJ: I was just glad to be working back then. For Morris Day, I was primarily playing the keyboards rather than my horn, but I learned a lot about the business aspect of the industry as well as being part of a serious ensemble. Besides paying the bills, being a sideman also provided a great school for learning how to be a bandleader, which I soaked up given how many talented people I was around. I learned a lot during those years. I was fortunate to meet Prince a few times during the 1980s when I was playing with Morris Day and his influence on everyone was immense. I never really had one specific person that showed me the ropes or anything. I just learned by playing and observing bands on a nightly basis.
MNOD: Are you currently working on any new material?
BJ: I’ve just started to write some new stuff, but it’s still in the very early stages and won’t be ready any time soon.