Of all the contemporary jazz artists, saxophonist David Sanborn is fascinating because he knows way more than he plays. It's easy to detect Hank Crawford in Sanborn's pinched, super-hot tone and riff-oriented improvisations, but many times his song choices suggest little regard for jazz tradition. But it's tough to cast Sanborn aside based upon his repertoire, because sometimes he'll sneak some high-grade in on you. In 1991 he did that with Another Hand, which surprised everyone as it featured him in tandem with Bill Frisell and Joey Baron. He followed that up with Upfront, which contains one of the funkiest and inventive takes of Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin'" ever. Sanborn's newest disc, Closer falls somewhere in between those two.
As with its direct predecessor, 2003's Timeagain, Sanborn recruits veteran producer Stewart Levine, who brings a pop-jazz gloss to the CD. But they still cull a delightfully eclectic bag of compositions, ranging from Abdullah Ibrahim's "Cape Town Fringe" and Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" to James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" and Sanborn's own "Another Time, Another Place."
Closer also boasts a high-caliber lineup, including Christian McBride, Steve Gadd, Russell Malone, Larry Goldings, Luis Quintero and Mike Mainieri. Yet as esteemed as the lineup may be, their performances are more professional than passionate. No one cajoles Sanborn into any unexpected improvisational banter. Sanborn does share the spotlight on "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," allowing singer Lizz Wright to shine, but otherwise Sanborn is the star.
Still Closer has its certain charm, especially on "Smile" and "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," where Sanborn proves to be a compelling balladeer, spiking the melody with his percussive attack and fueling the melodies with hot-blooded lyricism.