Smooth jazz star Boney James offered plenty of opportunity Friday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall to criticize his genre, better labeled smooth pop.
James can play the saxophone, and his band was a class act. But they never strayed from their lines or stepped into any area outside of their comfort zone, though they were very good at appearing to do so.
He worked hard to connect with the audience, which he did well, offering “How you doing, New York?” a few times during the show. During “Contact,” the title song of his previous album, he came out into the audience to blow his sax and dance with the people, eventually climbing up on a chair to hold his crescendo note. This was the kind of stuff he did, which always scored high for the mostly filled hall.
The band didn’t rock, nor did they swing. They occasionally grooved, but the fairly tight rhythm section mostly tick-ticked along in support of James screaming on his sax out front. James gave several solo moments to each band member, but never more than one round — a little extra for drummer Omari Williams — before returning himself to the spotlight. You had a hunch these guys would light it up if he let them.
He called Stevie Wonder an idol and covered “Don’t You Worry About a Thing.” This was one of his stronger tunes, and the audience responded with good energy, but then he cut it short. Unfortunately, the tightly choreographed show did not have the ability to react to the moment.
There were moments when he threatened to take a song somewhere adventurous, but instead he’d jump to a high note and hold it for a few measures, dramatically, to end the song, rather than push further.
He danced through most of his playing, often appearing more focused on his footwork than the music.
The softer the sound, the better for the wonderfully alert Music Hall, but the sound Friday night was loud for the venue, and while it contained most of the music, the bottom end bass dissolved into a rumble through the louder moments.
James played the older “Grand Central,” and then the new “Sunset Boulevard,” which he called a good driving tune. If that’s all he hopes the song to do — offer pleasant driving company — it succeeded.
He played “Batucada” from his recent record, which he called a Latin feel, though it sounded like the rest of them.
Guitarist Norris Jones sang a song from the latest record, then they played Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which worked well. Jones and James traded licks through the heart of the song, again ending just as it was going somewhere.
James can write good songs and play them on his sax, but he only appeared to play hard Friday night. In reality, he never took a chance, nor did the band. That, essentially, is the problem with, and the appeal of, smooth jazz.