David Sanborn, Drum Legend

I swear we try to hold these theme issues together, but great stuff just sort of gets in the way. This drum-themed book is a perfect example, with its cover story on—percussion legend David Sanborn? Oops.

I’m still confident we’ll delight drum nuts: We have features on Ari Hoenig, a swinging Brooklynite with a bad case of heavy metal “drum face” (see pg. 49), and Bill Stewart, the thinking man’s polyrhythmic virtuoso, as well as a lead review of a new Paul Motian release. There’s also an Overdue Ovation on Alvin Queen, who fairly recently reissued some terrific sessions from his Nilva label days, and an ironic Before & After with Billy Cobham, the mighty jazz-rocker who seems to resent all the grandiose musical attributes that made the Mahavishnu Orchestra a hit. But a couple non-drum goodies fell into play, and we couldn’t resist including them.

The first was an excerpt from The Narcotic Farm, a new book that chronicles Lexington, Kentucky’s notorious Narco facility, “America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts.” In the chapter we pulled, stunning archival photos reveal the place where some of jazz’s greatest players went to get clean—and woodshed. (In a startling example of compassion, the U.S. government thought musical studies could assist with addiction recovery.) The other curveball here, of course, is the Sanborn cover feature. Sanborn’s new Decca release, Here & Gone, is a fantastic tribute to saxophonist Hank Crawford. We originally planned to have Sanborn collaborate with his hero in a Q&A, but Mr. Crawford’s health didn’t allow it. Instead we present a definitive profile by one of our favorite contributors, Geoffrey Himes, and photographs by A-list shutterbug John Abbott.

The piece surprised me—I wasn’t aware of Sanborn’s childhood bout with polio, for one—but also inspired me to listen. I’ve defended players with pop reputations and serious chops in this space before—in fact, I continue to vindicate Bruce Hornsby’s trio record—and Sanborn deserves reconsideration more than any of them. I’d long associated Sanborn with pseudo-smooth kitsch and what seemed like willfully surreal jams with John Zorn and Sonic Youth on Hal Willner’s Night Music, a program in desperate need of a deluxe DVD reissue. His versatility seemed inarguable, but I wasn’t convinced he had soul. Yet I’d heard great straightahead blowers praise Sanborn’s sound, and as Himes’ piece uncovers, he owns the often elusive niche where R&B groove meets jazz eloquence: where the earth meets the sky. Sanborn, who came up in blues and even free jazz, was initially inspired by Bill Doggett and Ray Charles’ saxmen, and, as Christian McBride says in Himes’ story, his work makes sense in that context.

Sanborn is brought into even clearer focus on Here & Gone, where his burnished tone can be heard in the spirit of Crawford and the R&B barwalkers, free of ornate ’80s-centric production. I keep returning to one track in particular: “Brother Ray,” where Sanborn tangles his alto with Derek Trucks’ eerily vocal slide guitar. The song is serene, sure, but definitely not “smooth.”

Now if only he played drums.

Originally published in November 2008

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