Boney James - The Beat (2013)

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    Consistency is a quality that Boney James knows a lot about. The Grammy-nominated saxophonist has been melding influences of soul into a smooth-jazz soundscape for the past 20 years. In the process, he's scored top-ten albums on both the R&B and contemporary jazz charts. A combination of mellow instrumentals and lively, vocal-infused tunes (with guest artists such as Donell Jones and Shai) have assured his appeal with both purists and those who take their modern jazz with a little urban-contemporary flair.

    The Beat is James's fourteenth disc and aims to build upon his eclectic influences with Latin and world-music influences interspersed throughout some tracks. The result is a smooth-sailing set with a bit of bounce to it. Standouts on first listen include a cover of Sergio Mendes' "Batucada (The Beat)," performed with renowned trumpeter Rick Braun, and "Maker of Love," an appealing midtempo groove featuring the vocal finesse of Raheem DeVaughn. These two numbers exemplify James's capability for adapting his style to varying moods.

    While the album title might conjure images of a celebratory party, The Beat here refers to an underlying emphasis on groove—not always necessarily in the vein of "get down." For example, the reflectively understated "Mari's Song" graces sonically with lightly flowing percussion, while the plaintive "Missing You" is etched by a softly echoing backbeat. During these slower cuts, there are instances when the arrangements lack a certain zest—which could have been obtained with the addition of a few more instruments and chord structures. Given, the m.o. of smooth jazz is often to keep it simple and laid back, but several times here, there is a fine line between subtlety and plainness.

    What is missing during those occasional lapses is easy to overlook with the onset of inspired works such as "The Midas (This Is Why)," a rustling head-nodder featuring The Floacist's spoken word and gently coaxing background vox. Supple piano fills nicely complement James's bright lead lines while the shekere firms up the foundation of the groove. Furthermore, the closing "You Can Count on Me" ties together The Beat's core influences of R&B, jazz, and Latin quite nicely with a just-right bass line, in-the-pocket drums, and James's calmly assured melodies.

    Taken as a whole, The Beat makes a solid statement of James's flexibility and prowess in both the rhythmic and melodic structures of contemporary R&B and jazz. The imbibition of multi-cultural instruments adds a compelling edge. While these eclectic moments are not always maximized, the stylistic execution of the majority of material is effective and memorable. Recommended.

    by Justin Kantor