“I’m always thinking about making music,” he says. “It’s still my consuming passion.”
That passion reverberates throughout James’ latest project, The Beat. The April 9 release marks his 14th album as well as his return to former label Concord Records. It’s a penetrating fusion of R&B, jazz and Latin rhythms given voice by James’ emotive saxophone and such guests as trumpet hitman Rick Braun, R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn and spoken word phenom The Floacist.
“There was no sense that this had to be a certain thing,” recalls James, who was between labels when he began recording the album. “I was recording for fun, experimenting with this hybrid R&B and Latin sound, two genres I love. So my playing on this album has a different energy. I think it’s one of the best records I’ve ever done.”
Sergio Mendes’ “Batucada (The Beat)” provided the initial inspiration for the genre mash-up. Re-imagining the Brazilian tune with a percolating funk backbeat, James reunites with longtime colleague Braun—a combustible teaming he describes as possessing a “certain edge that creates a really cool vibe.”
That natural, organic vibe courses throughout the rest of the 10-track album produced by James, who also wrote/co-wrote eight songs. Those tunes include lead single “Maker of Love,” a sexy flamethrower sparked by the soulful Raheem DeVaughn. A longtime fan of the R&B singer, James says their collaboration came to fruition after they began following each other on Twitter. “I sent him the track, and he came back with an incredible lyric and finished vocal that he’d done in one night,” recalls James.
Equally as mesmerizing is the seductive “The Midas (This Is Why)” featuring U.K. poet/musician The Floacist, best known as one-half of the Grammy-winning neo-soul duo Floetry. “I just wanted a spoken word thing,” says James of The Floacist’s laid-back flow. “Between its R&B groove, the shekere and conga percussion plus her Euro coffeehouse feel, the track adds to the album’s world music flavor.”
James opens the album with an illuminating take on Stevie Wonder’s R&B/Latin mid-tempo classic “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” From there, “The Beat” saunters into the easygoing groove of “Sunset Boulevard” then segues into the sophisticated bossa nova samba of “Mari’s Song.” After kicking into high energy on the percussion-driven “Powerhouse,” the versatile musician downshifts effortlessly into first gear on the subtly elegant “Acalento (Lullaby).” Notes James, “I’m just trying to stretch a little here. There’s no agenda. It’s just music that came out of me.”
The music has been flowing ever since he took up the clarinet at the age of eight. Switching to the saxophone, he began playing in dance bands at 14. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts and raised in New Rochelle, NY, James counts Wonder, legendary musician/songwriter/producer Quincy Jones Earth, Wind & Fire and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. as major influences. James later honed his R&B chops while touring and doing session work for such marquee names as the Isley Brothers, Randy Crawford and Ray Parker Jr.
Conversant on the tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, James debuted as a solo artist in 1992 with Trust. Cited as virtually creating the urban jazz genre—melding contemporary jazz with hip-hop sensibilities—the crossover virtuoso has racked up nine No. 1 albums on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart and two top 10 entries on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums tally. A three-time Grammy nominee and an NAACP Image Award nominee, James has earned several other honors, including four RIAA-certified gold albums and a Soul Train Award for Best Jazz Album.
During the course of his 21-year career, James has built a solid reputation as a compelling live performer who averages between 50-80 gigs a year. “Let’s make something perfectly clear: James is not a smooth jazz player,” declares a Boston Globe review. “His music is muscular and gritty … James swaggers across the stage like a blacktop hero draining treys on an overmatched opponent.”
However, between his two most recent albums—2009’s Send One Your Love (Concord) and 2011’s Contact (Verve)—James was wondering if he’d ever play the sax again. He was rear-ended by a drunk driver on a Los Angeles highway. His car totaled, James suffered a fractured jaw and lost two teeth as well as the ability to play for two months.
That period is now thankfully a dim memory as James returns to Concord, ready to step up his game with The Beat. “The music I’m making comes with different elements that need to be experienced, not pre-judged or categorized,” he says. “I just want to be fresh, not derivative.”