Three-time Grammy nominated Jazz artist and saxophonist, Boney James, brought his amazing band to Thornton Winery this past Saturday night, setting the stage on fire with his brand of Contemporary Urban/Pop/R&B Instrumental Jazz.
The second show of Thornton’s 22nd annual Champagne Jazz Concert Series, it was an evening filled with incredible gourmet food, impeccable wine, and magical music. It won’t soon be forgotten.
Set in the elegant Mediterranean-style Fountain Terrace, the stage (perched upon the steps leading to Thornton’s tasting room) was surrounded by concert-style seats, with dinner tables behind them reserved for those fans who purchased the Gourmet Supper Package (the amazing 3-course meal prepared by Thornton’s own Café Champagne Restaurant).
The seating arrangement made for a cozy feel, yet that of an important, first-rate concert. It was a nice balance. The event was sold out – there were tons of fans everywhere – but it felt like we were all invited to a private concert at someone’s mansion – exclusive, intimate, friendly. The “old world” atmosphere made it seem as though I was sitting in a Parisian courtyard circa the early 1950s, patiently waiting to watch Dizzy Gillespie take the stage – it had that kind of vibe. It was definitely going to be a special night.
The crowd was also impressive – well dressed, mature, and sophisticated. Jazz lovers are a unique and special breed of music fan – they know good music and demand it of the artists they choose to see. They’re educated music aficionados who “don’t suffer fools,” as the saying goes. And on this night, no “fools” stepped onto the Champagne Jazz stage. Great music was expected and great music was delivered.
A palpable excitement permeated the audience as everyone found their seats and uncorked their bottles of wine. The concert was about to begin. Owner John Thornton was joined by his son (and winery President) Steve Thornton to welcome all of us and to salute the 22nd year of their winery’s Champagne Jazz Concert Series. John also took a moment to honor the current and retired servicemen and women in the audience and asked each one to stand and be recognized. A nice touch. Of course, in the next breath, Mr. Thornton touted his winery’s wine club membership–You can’t blame a businessman for being a businessman.
As I savored my first sips of Thornton’s 2004 Brut Reserve (per my server’s recommendation – thanks Lisa!), Toronto-based acid jazz group Four80East hit the stage to get the music flowin’. With the sun setting behind us, this 6-piece combo set the perfect mood as the audience enjoyed the first course of the evening – the Vineyard Antipasto Salad. Just two songs into their set, it was apparent that Four80East – though the opening band – could very well have been the headliner. They were that good. Their dance/R&B-infused sound found a hot groove (especially via their saxophonist – Marcus Anderson) and rode that steam train into the main course – Braised Beef Short Rib.
Everything was flowing by now – the music, the food…the wine. Sangria-drinking ladies were dancing in the aisles, Marcus took an awesome turn scatting through a Talk Box (made famous by Peter Frampton – remember “Do You Feel Like We Do” and “Show Me The Way”?), and keyboardist (and Four80East co-founder) Rob DeBoer summed it all up after their last song by musing “What a beautiful night…and what a beautiful spot.” Amen, brother.
Boney James and his band – tonight’s headliner – sauntered onto the stage just as dessert was being served (a fantastic Chocolate Mocha Torte). Very fitting. Just in case you’re not familiar with Boney, here’s a small litany of his accomplishments: sold over 3 million albums, making him one of the most successful instrumental artists of our time; has had 8 of his releases hit the #1 slot on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart (2 of them have entered the top 10 on the R&B Albums Chart); and his latest, Send One Your Love stayed at number one for 8 consecutive weeks. In 2009, Billboard ranked him the #1 “Hot Smooth Jazz Artist” as well as the #2 “Top Contemporary Jazz Artist,” while also naming him the #3 “Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Decade” (2000 to 2009) – behind only Norah Jones and Kenny G. He’s also been a Soul Train Award winner (Best Jazz Album) and has been an NAACP Image Award nominee for Best Jazz Album. He’s a Hollywood Bowl-level artist who has made the Temecula Wine Country a frequent stop on his tours. We were truly blessed.
Boney James is known the world over for his energetic, lively, and colorful live performances, and we got one tonight. Boney is an engaging, self-assured frontman – he knows he’s got what the audience wants and knows that his band will deliver. He loves to move around freely onstage, which gives his show a kinetic, energetic, and flowing feel. He’s the opposite of, say, 1980s-era Miles Davis, who was known to sometimes stand on the side of the stage, or behind his drummer, out of sight of the audience. No, Boney connects with his fans – he makes us laugh, relax, and enjoy. You don’t have to work hard to dig and appreciate Boney’s urban jazz – he makes it easy, fun and natural.
After switching to a soprano sax (from his norm – the alto), Boney lead his band into a sterling cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Send One Your Love,” the title track of Boney’s latest CD release. Explaining his motivation behind the album, Mr. James told the audience that he wanted to make “the ultimate make-out CD.” After watching countless couples getting “cozy” with each other and a group of about 20 concertgoers secure an area stage right for an impromptu dance floor, I’d say he succeeded. On this brilliant Temecula spring night, with one of jazz’s best bands playing soothing, sensual music, how could you not take your girl’s hand and ask her to dance? Oh yeah – romance was definitely in the air.
As the set progressed, standing ovations after each song became the norm. The Temecula evening got a little cooler, but Boney & his band got hotter and hotter. It was at this point, as the crowd was no doubt in Boney’s capable hands, that it became clear to me why Boney James and the wine country are such a perfect blend – because his sax playing is like a vintage Primitivo or Syrah. His music is smooth, it’s jammy & fruit-forward…it’s also complex and full-bodied, with a slightly sweet & long finish. His jazz pairs perfectly with Temecula.
While there were many high points throughout the performance, the pinnacle (at least for me) was their “Boney-ized” version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” From the first few notes Boney played, the sharp & attentive crowd picked up on this classic melody and got into it right away. Who doesn’t love this tune? After Boney introduced it with his amazing alto sax work, his lead guitarist (Rob Bacon) took the song to new emotional heights with his Eddie Hazel-like lines and flourishes. He and Boney traded melodic lines back and forth, then joined together in harmony and shared the melody note for note – taking us, the audience, to a climactic peak. Unforgettable.
Toward the end of the concert, everyone was out of their respective seats, dancing, cheering, clapping, and groovin’ to the music.
Shouts of “Go Boney! Go Boney! Go Boney!” echoed through the courtyard, as all of us encouraged Boney and his fantastic musicians to get their own groove on. Ya gotta give back after receiving so much, ya know?
Speaking of giving, Boney gave the audience one last thrill before calling it a night when he took to playing with us – that’s right, the saxophonist of the people took it directly to the people. He stepped off the stage and continued blowing his alto sax as he walked into the crowd, surprising and pleasing his adoring fans closest to the stage. Boney then took a long loop through the rest of the audience (right past my table, in fact), never skipping a beat nor missing a note. Upon finding and stepping back up onto the stage, Boney received the loudest cheers of the evening. It was a cool moment – one that all of us will certainly remember.
There’s something about eating a delicious gourmet meal, drinking fabulous champagne, and groovin’ to first-rate music that just seems so…right. Thanks to Thornton Winery, Four80East, and, of course, Boney James, tonight was an evening of love, celebration, fine food & wine, and scintillating jazz. I know I’ll be back to Thornton Winery for another one of their amazing jazz concerts – I imagine I’ll see you there as well.
For Thornton Winery’s complete Champagne Jazz Series schedule, please visit their site, here.