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07/05/13

Boney James
The Beat
Concord Records

On his 14th album, Boney James demonstrates how working within a familiar range need not be limiting. He doesn’t deviate much from the R&B-inflected saxophone sound that made him one of smooth jazz’s most popular artists, but he places it in a variety of settings both classic and contemporary.

James opens with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” slowing the original’s Latin rhythm slightly to an easy groove, his soprano saxophone fluttering gracefully around the well-known melody. Things get more contemporary on “The Midas (This Is Why),” where singer and spoken-word artist Natalie “The Floacist” Stewart (formerly of the R&B duo Floetry) turns in a breathy vocal performance that provides an atmospheric, hypnotic counterpoint to James’ funky grooving.

The Beat includes several ballads sure to set a romantic mood: The slow-burn “Missing You” features singer Abi Mancha on the hook, while the pretty “Mari’s Song” finds James at his most lyrical and intimate, his tenor sax singing the melody over minimal accompaniment. The boudoir ballad “Maker of Love” features smooth vocals by Raheem DeVaughn, but while James contributes tasteful, well-chosen fills, his performance is so understated as to make him seem like a guest on his own track.

The album’s standout cut is a cover of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66’s “Batucada (The Beat),” a duet with James’ old friend, trumpeter Rick Braun. The two have collaborated before, most notably on the very successful 2000 duet project Shake It Up. Their chemistry here, as on that album, is unmistakable, with James and Braun coalescing before urging each other on in high-octane solos. It’s a reminder of how well these two artists work together—perhaps another duet album is in their future.

Originally published in June 2013
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