The thing about a new Boney James album is that it is the same old Boney James album. James has skillfully found his niche as a musician and doggone if he's going to stray far from it. Detour is the saxophonist's 18th album as a leader, but the formula (and the songs) remain the same. Start off with that buttery sweet tenor sax right upfront, add some keyboards, programmed drums, and quietly strummed guitars, throw in a vocal track or two (here provided by Lalah Hathaway), and always keep it short and to the point. The album clocks in at an economical 40 minutes and not one track hits five minutes in length. Stir, bake, and serve up piping hot, and there you have it.
It's all as formulaic as it gets, but it's hard thing to hate on when the results sound so good. It would be one thing if James could not play, but he can, and does so impressively at times. It is just that you never get the sense of James pushing himself as an artist and challenging the listeners' expectations. Predictability has its virtues, but it can become a trap for a musician to give the people what they want and nothing more than that.
The good stuff on Detour is front-loaded with the title track followed by "Bring It Back," featuring some fat drum beats that are not drums at all. "Sway," "Memphis" and then "Coastin,'" where Lalah Hathaway rolls up to the studio's drive-thru window, drops a pleasant little vocal, and is on her way within 3:41 to enjoy the rest of her day. Then you get to the aptly titled "The Loop," which literally could have been on any James album and you would not know the difference. None of the final four tracks after Hathaway's drive-by tune is bad. It's just that none of them are memorable in any way.
And there you have it. Another solid, dependable effort from an artist who knows what he is good at and does not seem particularly inclined to do anything you have not already heard. James hardly needs any career counseling, but one can not help but wonder what would happen if he pushed himself just a little bit?
The last time James served up a surprise was five years ago when he covered the Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael ballad "Skylark" on 2017's Honestly (Concord Records, 2017) and stripped it down to nothing but his sax and some keyboards. James kills on it. It is a great interpretation of a jazz classic and when it is over, what is there to say, except: "Man, why not a Boney James album of standards?"
James produces his own records so they sound exactly the way he wants them to. If he wanted to do The Great America Songbook nothing is stopping him from doing so. Nothing but a rigid adherence to a successful formula and a marked reluctance to mess with it. That means in two years the next Boney James album will drop but no matter what it is called it will still be the same Boney James album.
Detour; Bring It Back; Sway; Memphis; Tribute; Coastin'; The Loop; Northern Lights;
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