At age 51, Lowell, Mass.-born saxophonist James Oppenheim (better known as Boney James) has spent most of his career injecting soul in the jazz game. Now it appears he wants to spice things up with Latin grooves as well.
“Really, it’s sort of, like, the twin loves of genres of music that I just grew up really loving, because I really love rhythm and groove,” says James, on the phone from his Los Angeles home base.
“And Latin rhythm and groove is really prominent and distinctive and evocative, so I always just loved it.”
While James has previously recorded Latin-flavored compositions, including a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco,” he hadn’t put his foot completely in doing an album full of them. With the release of his latest album “The Beat,” he combines Latin flavor with his soulful smoothness.
He considered doing a straight-up Latin record, but when he started working on a cover of Sergio Mendes’ “The Batucada (The Beat),” the R & B side of him kept coming out to play.
“When I was working on the arrangement, I kind of thought what if I put more of an R & B kind of backbeat on it, you know,” he says.
“In my head, I started to imagine what if it was like Sergio Mendes, but the Ohio Players were playing it or something like that. And when I came up with the idea and I put it down on tape, I said, ‘Oh, man, that’s pretty dope!’ ”
James would go on to record “Beat” as a mashup, taking R&B numbers and adding more percussion, while throwing more backbeat on Latin funk tunes. He certainly starts the album off on the right foot by doing a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Latin soul classic “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing.”
“As I started to think about a Latin-R&B hybrid, it definitely occurred to me that I wasn’t the first person to think of that, because Stevie had done it, you know,” he says.
“And, then, I thought what if I did my version of his version of that. And, so, I thought that was kind of a fun experiment and I’m really proud of the way that thing turned out.”
In true James fashion, he got together with several guest artists to appear on the album. James has peppered his albums with a diverse array of performers over the years, whether it’s singers like Faith Evans, Anthony Hamilton and Dwele, or jazz-R&B fusion pioneers like George Benson and George Duke.
For “Beat,” he hooked up with soul vocalist Raheem DeVaughn (whom James hit up on Twitter), MC and former Floetry member Natalie “The Floacist” Stewart and smooth-jazz trumpeter Rick Braun.
“Every time I have a guest artist on a song,” he says, “it’s really just because I’m sort of, you know, kind of casting for a movie – you know, who’s gonna play the role of the singer on this thing – and just trying to match the right voice with the song.”
“Beat” also marks the return of James dropping albums on the Concord Music Group label. Although James has made some records previously for Concord, his last album, 2011’s “Contact,” was released on Verve Forecast. “When my deal was up over there, I kind of got wooed away to Verve by the people that were in charge over there,” he says. “They gave me a great deal. They kind of sold me on coming to Verve, so I thought, well, I’ll give that a try. And, then, ‘Contact’ came out and it did really well as well. It was very successful – you know, 11 weeks at number one.”
But right when James was feeling at home at Verve, there was an internal shake-up.
“Verve shifted who was in charge and, all of a sudden, it wasn’t as friendly a place for me,” he remembers.
“So it’s kind of like, all right, what am I gonna do now? And the people at Concord were like, ‘Come home to Concord, you know. We want you back.’ ”
Ultimately, James feels that as long as people continue to give him the opportunity to create and release music – and as long as fans continue to consume it – he’ll always be in the mood to try new, different things.
“I’m just trying to make records that I love and, you know, I feel very passionate about it,” he says. “