Boney James’ career has hinged on some significant twists of fate, beginning when he was just 8 years old.
At the time James, born James Oppenheimer, was just starting out in his school band in Lowell, Mass., not on his signature saxophone, but the clarinet. And that instrument wasn’t even his first choice, either.
“I only got a clarinet when there wasn’t any trumpets — I was 8 years old, so what did I know? It was just something to have in my hand,” he said recently from his home in Los Angeles.
“Two years later, there were so many clarinets in the school band, and since I was the best one, [the teacher] thought it would be easiest for me to switch to sax. And at 10, I didn’t know; I kind of went along with it — he convinced me it would be better to play the sax, so I could be in stage band when I got to junior high. I had seen the stage band — they had a drummer, an electric guitar player; they wore snazzy satin jackets.”
The switch opened James up to a broader spectrum of pop, R&B and jazz, all of which have influenced the music he’s made in his solo career.
But even that was a long time coming. After studying history at the University of California in Los Angeles, he decided to focus on music full time and joined up with former Prince collaborator and The Time leader Morris Day in his new solo band — not on saxophone, but keyboards. He spent seven years as a sideman and session musician, playing with Day and artists including The Isley Brothers, Teena Marie and Bobby Caldwell.
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 2nd St., Troy
How Much: $42, $35, $30
More Info: 273-0038, www.troymusichall.org
“I learned to play keyboards just so I could start writing songs, and I’d gotten into prog synthesizers just in my little home studio,” James said. “I was working in a restaurant, delivering pizzas, trying to break into the business, and Morris Day had broken up with The Time and was looking for musicians. I said to myself, ‘I gotta get out of this restaurant,’ and so I went and auditioned and was hired, which was a big surprise. When I told them I was really a saxophone player, that was a big surprise to them.”
Fourteen albums into his career as one of the most successful instrumental artists of all time, James is still benefitting from lucky twists. His latest album, the Latin and R&B-tinged “The Beat,” features a collaboration with neo soul singer Raheem DeVaughn on the track “Maker of Love.” James had had his eye on DeVaughn for some time, and as it turned out, the singer was also a fan of James.
“This one, right away I knew would have a vocal, and then it becomes a process of, who’s gonna finish it?” James said. “I write melodies, not lyrics; lyrics are not usually my thing. So I have to find a singer who can also bring the lyric thing, and Raheem DeVaughn was at the top of my list. At the same moment, he had just started following me on Twitter. It was kismet, you know. So I reached out on Twitter, and that’s how we hooked up.”
James has been busy on the road since the album’s release in April. He’ll perform at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall for the first time ever on Friday night.
For the first time, James utilized his touring band in the studio, with drummer Omari Williams, keyboardist Mark Stephens and bassist Dwayne “Smitty” Smith all appearing on “The Beat.” On this tour the band is being augmented by guitarist Norris Jones, who also sings on the two vocal-driven songs being performed in this show.
“They brought a live energy to the record, and a little continuity from the record to the live gig; it’s a nice feeling,” James said.
“When it’s live, something being done in front of an audience, the energy you feel — things just take on a life of their own. We set out to rearrange stuff in rehearsal anyway to give it that extra oomph and flesh out sections that you can’t do in a four-minute song on the record, too — we sort of add sections and reinterpret things, while still walking the line of faithfully re-creating the music people might love from the record.”
The album’s Latin influence is another first for James, who since his 1992 debut “Trust” has blended soulful R&B and smooth jazz into his highly successful, easy-listening sound. While always a fan of the Latin genre, he avoided recording a full Latin album for many years.
“It felt too concept-y to me,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I could really do it naturally, honestly or sincerely — and that’s one of the things I like a record to be, sincere.”
His arrangement of the song “Batucada (The Beat),” which appears as the album’s fourth track and reunites James with trumpeter and longtime collaborator Rick Braun, ended up providing the key to creating a natural-sounding, Latin-influenced record.
“I came up with the idea of changing the rhythm and bringing in more R&B into this samba groove,” James said. “It started me off on the concept of making this record as kind of a mash-up. It was just inspiring — ‘This is fun.’ I felt the ideas were flowing once I came up with that little twist.”
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or email@example.com.