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David Sanborn: Inside the Music

David Sanborn

Eleven years have passed since I last interviewed David Sanborn. Back then it seemed like the Grammy-winning alto saxophonist was in the midst of an artistic crisis, not entirely sure what move to make next. On the one hand, he was enjoying peak popularity, but on the other hand, the well had run dry. Artistic stasis had set in.

“What had happened was, I was losing my ability to be spontaneous,” he explains. “And I just felt that I had to step away from that process for a while because I wasn’t able to approach it in a way that I was coming up with anything fresh. At the time, I did an album called Close Up, which was a little too pop for my tastes. And toward the end of making it I realized, ‘You know what? I can’t do this anymore.'”

Feeling a need to break with the tried and true formula that had produced such widespread commercial success for him with Warner Bros. through the ’80s, Sanborn would subsequently take a walk on the wild side. Tapped to host the hip and highly eclectic syndicated television show Night Music, which ran for two years before Michelob pulled the plug on their corporate sponsorship, he found himself presiding over a three-ring circus of disparate characters like Al Green and Sun Ra, Bootsy Collins and Allen Toussaint, Phil Woods and NRBQ, Toots Thielemans and Charlie Haden, all tossed together in a wonderfully weird musical melange, often with Sanborn smack dab in the middle.

Simultaneously, he began investigating the fringe downtown music scene, which culminated in an appearance onstage at the old Knitting Factory alongside renegade saxophonists John Zorn and Tim Berne with drummers Ted Epstein and Pheeroan Ak Laff in a frantic all-Ornette program. This led to his own ambitious debut on Elektra, Another Hand, easily his most daring artistic expression to date. Produced by former Night Music producer Hal Willner, it featured such unlikely sidemen as guitarists Marc Ribot, Dave Tronzo, and Bill Frisell, drummers Joey Baron, Steve Jordan, and Jack DeJohnette, bassists Greg Cohen and Charlie Haden and NRBQ bandmates Al Anderson and Terry Adams. Continuing on this adventurous path, Sanborn guested on Berne’s cutting edge Diminuitive Mysteries, a 1992 collection of seven Julius Hemphill compositions on the JMT label.

After a succession of strong outings on Elektra-1992’s Upfront, 1994’s Hearsay, 1995’s orchestral standards project Pearls, and 1997’s Spring-Sanborn has come full circle back to the pop aesthetic that he once openly embraced. And with Inside, his 15th as a leader, he’s hitting it with newfound assuredness. Sanborn’s signature alto rasp is in full effect here as he blows with urgency and soulful phrasing on melodic originals like “Lisa,” “When I’m With You,” and the heartfelt ballad “Naked Moon” as well as a sly rendition of the Aretha Franklin classic “Daydreaming,” featuring Cassandra Wilson on vocals, and a faithful cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” (culled from the Night Music archives) with vocals by Sting.

An emotional highpoint on Inside is “Brother Ray,” a slow Hammond B-3 fueled blues penned by producer Marcus Miller, who also contributes a particularly nasty, Cornell Dupree-ish guitar solo on the track. The elite horn section here includes Ronnie Cuber, Lenny Pickett, Sanborn, and Michael Brecker. The Ray, of course, refers to Sanborn’s boyhood hero, Ray Charles. “In my formative years as a musician, I think I just related to that emotionalism of Ray as a singer,” says Sanborn. “There was a certain kind of clarity and spareness to what he did vocally that was complemented and also echoed by the way Hank Crawford played alto sax. Hank is such a gifted melody player. He can play slower tempos better than anybody I know. I heard him one time in Chicago at the old Jazz Showcase with Jimmy McGriff and he did a version of ‘You Send Me’ that was so slow…like when Ray at Newport did ‘Drown in My Own Tears.’ Remember how slow that was? You could have lunch between one and two. And to be able to swing at that slow of a tempo is an art in itself. I think most players will tell you that the hardest thing is to play a ballad because you’re really exposed. You can’t hide behind those licks and tricks. You gotta come out and say who you are.”

With the presence of Fender Rhodes electric piano and near-subliminal Moog basslines throughout, Sanborn concedes that there is a distinct ’70s flavor to Inside. There’s even a looped sample of Dr. John’s mysterious chants from his Gris Gris anthem “Walk on Gilded Splinters” on the ominous funk vehicle “Trance,” which fits in nicely with the ’70s styled theme here.

“I love the sonic quality of some of that stuff from the ’70s,” says Sanborn. “The early days of the Moog synthesizer and the Fender Rhodes…it’s just such a warm sound. It’s the same thing that turns me on about the Hammond B-3 organ. It’s that quality of warmth and fullness that’s just really attractive to me on a sonic level. And I think in using elements like the Moog and Fender Rhodes, it helped to lend that kind of personal, intimate quality to the rest of the music, which is really what I was after. That was my objective, to imbue the record with that kind of intimate quality, like it was kind of happening inside your head. And we purposely recorded a lot of the tunes on this record pretty dry so it would feel like you were sitting in a room listening to the players play.”

The sly cover of Aretha’s “Daydreaming” also plays into that ’70s motif that Sanborn seemed to be cultivating for Inside. Cassandra Wilson delivers the lyrics in typically alluring fashion while Sanborn complements her vocals in the same way that Hank Crawford would comment on what Ray Charles was singing. “We thought that tune would be right down Cassandra’s alley,” says Sanborn. “And she did an incredible job on it. There’s a freedom about the way that Cassandra phrases that may have been informed early on by Joni Mitchell, but Cassandra is such a great musician in her own right. She has that quality that I think all great artists have that when she steps on stage or in front of a microphone she just inhabits this world. You step into her world, and it’s a great place to be. It’s the Cassandra Wilson Experience. There’s a kind of freedom and spontaneity and sense of exploration but there’s still a grounded quality. In some respects it’s like sitting in front of this great open hearth. You feel this tremendous warmth, but then there’s this sense of adventure too. Because she really has the jazz sensibility of never wanting to do the same thing twice. And that’s why I have so much respect for her.”

During the mid ’80s, when drum machines and production values seemed to dominate the recording scene, Sanborn had fallen away from that jazz sensibility. Nowadays, he has a much looser attitude toward recording. “I did get hung up on machines and things in the middle ’80s,” he agrees. “I got into exploring the pop format early in the ’80s and learning about pop production values because at the time I felt that what was missing in a lot of jazz records that I heard was a sense of the sonics. There was a breakdown from all those great old records that Rudy Van Gelder made for Prestige and Blue Note. There was a real personal quality to all those records that somehow with the advent of multi-track recording got lost. Something went haywire. And there was some great music that happened during that period but it almost happened in spite of the production values.

“Anyway, I was intrigued by that process, but I think I also became a little obsessed with trying to make things perfect in the studio,” he continues. “And sometimes the results came off as a little perfunctory. By the end of the ’80s I think I had reached my limit recording that way because I was getting really stale. And the records that I was making were not a reflection of…not only of where I was heading but also where I was at when I was playing live. And it just felt like it was time to make a break.”

He considers Another Hand to be the dividing line in his career. “That was a live record. We did maybe two or three takes, but certainly all of my playing was live. And from that point on, I tried to do everything totally live in the studio. I decided to start trusting my instincts more, going with first takes. And what I found after having been away from that process for a while is when I got back to it, I was able to approach it in a much fresher way.”

Consequently, a majority of his solos on Inside are first takes. “There were some moments where I thought, ‘Well, I could’ve done that better.’ And I’d try it a couple of more times but I started to get too calculated about it. Inevitably, I’d go back to the first take. It may not be perfect, but that’s what happened live. And at this point I’d rather choose a real moment than try to get something perfect that’s going to sound perfunctory.”

Given his open-minded attitude, Sanborn’s future path will no doubt continue to be marked by stylistic shifts to suit his changing moods. “I don’t ever want to be limited to just doing that one thing,” he says. “I like the freedom, the mobility of being able to move around and do different stuff. You always need to do things that inspired you but there’s so many things that turn me on that I don’t want to just limit myself to just one kind of musical experience. So why not do as much of it as you can?”

And he covers a lot of musical ground on Inside, an album that packs the same kind of punch that his maiden voyage Taking Off did some 24 years ago. “I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to make a very good living as a musician doing what I do,” says Sanborn while sitting in the plush surroundings of his Upper West Side brownstone. “But the reason that I went into this was not…I mean, I don’t mean to sound totally altruistic or totally pure about anything but I became a musician because in a certain kind of way, I had no choice. It’s what I was compelled to do, you know? Certainly when I started playing I had no visions that I was going to have any kind of solo career. I mean, to me, if I had any kind of dream at all it was like someday to get with a really good band, whatever that was. Everything else that’s been happening is just serendipitous or accidental.”

When accidents happen around David Sanborn, the results are generally noteworthy.

Gear Box

Dave plays Selmer Mark VI altos, sopranos and sopraninos. He also has a Yamaha soprano. “I’m always afraid to tell what particular horns I play because everybody gobbles them up and then I can’t get any,” he notes. He also has an extensive array of recording equipment and assorted gear, including a Yamaha O2R mixing board, Tascam DA-38 and DA-88 tape machines, Apogee A-to-D converter, Siemens V76 pre-amps, JV 2080 sampler, Trinity keyboard, Fender Rhodes 73 keyboard, Kurzweil keyboard and a prized Telefunken 251 microphone.

Listening Pleasures

Pete Rock: Soul Survivor (BMG)

Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil (Blue Note)

Miles Shorter: E.S.P. (Columbia)

Me’Shell N’degeOcello: Peace Beyond Passion (Maverick)

Herbie Hancock: Thrust (Columbia)

Ornette Coleman: At the Golden Circle (Blue Note)

Bill Evans/Jim Hall: Intermodulation (Verve)

Maria Callas: Puccini’s Tosca

Originally Published