: David Sanborn aims to redeem the smooth-jazz sound he helped introduce. -->
David Sanborn stretches out on new CD
By Greg Cahill
David Sanborn heaves a repentant sigh. "Yeah, I'm afraid I'd have to plead guilty to some extent," says the popular alto saxophonist after being reminded that his commercially successful--and often imitated--pop sound virtually defined contemporary jazz in the 1980s and beyond. "I'm not entirely happy with that," he laments, speaking by phone while on the road. "If I'm going to be held responsible for the depersonalization of jazz and making the music more generic, then I'm definitely not pleased."
Over the years, the 58-year-old Sanborn--a six-time Grammy winner and arguably the most successful saxophonist of his generation--has taken his share of abuse from music critics. They've knocked him for being musically shallow and spear-heading the vapid lite-jazz movement that spawned such tepid acts as Kenny G and Dave Koz.
Even Sanborn admits that the upbeat, dance-oriented style for which he is known was "self-limiting" and forced him to play in the upper register of the instrument, a situation that he concedes resulted in a certain "sameness" of expression.
"You just can't explore the full palette of sound available to you as a saxophone player [by playing dance music]," he adds, "because the piano range is eliminated, and that's where a lot of the warm woodwind quality of the sax exists."
But Sanborn's most recent album--his debut on the Verve jazz label after decades with Warner and Elektra--has silenced his critics. Time Again matched him with an all-star lineup: guitarist Russell Malone, vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Steve Gadd--on a set of mostly laid-back romantic instrumentals that has been hailed as his best work to date.
"Much of this album is reexamining things from my past," says Sanborn, who performs this week at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma. "On Time Again, I'm readdressing songs that have meant a lot to me over the years, some of which I had heard when I was growing up in St. Louis."
Indeed, most music fans are unaware that Sanborn's roots are deeply grounded in the gritty St. Louis blues and R&B scenes. Sanborn--who overcame childhood polio--honed his chops by jamming with such then up-and-coming local avant-jazz players as Oliver Lake and Lester Bowie. He also worked with bluesman "Little" Milton Campbell and was influenced by soul-jazz saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman, King Curtis and Hank Crawford (who was the saxophonist for the old Ray Charles band)--hard-driving honkers and midnight balladeers who crossed back and forth between the blues, R&B and jazz scenes.
In the late 1960s, Sanford moved to San Francisco and joined the seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band, even performing with them at Woodstock. He later hooked up with Stevie Wonder, who used the distinctive Butterfield horn section on his breakthrough 1972 album Talking Book.
In the mid-1970s, Sanborn became a much sought-after sideman, touring with Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and David Bowie, among others. He also moved to New York, where he met Michael and Randy Brecker, the fraternal team of hot jazz session players. "That's when I started playing fusion," he recalls. "You know, before 'fusion' was a dirty word."
In 1975 he launched his solo career with Taking Off and has recorded almost two dozen albums, including the bestselling 1986 album Double Vision with pianist Bob James.
Sanborn used that mainstream success to help showcase fringe acts, hosting a short-lived but highly credible network TV show called Night Music, that spotlighted Miles Davis, NRBQ and Sun Ra, and was known for once-in-a-lifetime pairings of acts like jazz colossus Sonny Rollins, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and quirky popsters Was (Not Was).
Sanborn also hosted a nationally syndicated radio program that gave airplay to traditional jazz usually shunned by participating adult contemporary stations. In his own musical tastes, he's remained steadfastly eclectic.
"I grew up listening to music with an open mind and drawing on different elements, which is what I'm continuing to do on this latest record. Whether I'm playing Joni Mitchell or Stanley Turrentine, Time Again reflects the attitude I've always had: if it's good, it's good."
David Sanborn performs Friday, Aug. 13, at the Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Rolando Morales opens the show. 8pm. $35. 707.765.2121.
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From the August 11-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.