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David Sanborn: The Blues and the Abstract Truth

David Sanborn
David Sanborn (photo: John Abbott)
David Sanborn
David Sanborn

In 1956 David Sanborn was a skinny 11-year-old kid whose left arm hung awkwardly, a result of his eight-year bout with polio. While the other boys were out playing sports, little David spent countless hours listening to the radio, falling in love with the hits of the day: Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” Those three singles had something in common: wild, wooly saxophone breaks by Clifford Scott, Herb Hardesty and Lee Allen, respectively.

“I wasn’t like the other kids,” Sanborn reflects ruefully. “My mantra was, ‘Hey, guys, wait up.’ I used to lie in bed a lot, listening to the radio, which was my theater of the imagination. To hear those songs coming through the air from Memphis and New Orleans seemed so magical.

“My parents had records by Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, and I liked those, but the rock ‘n’ roll I heard on the radio was the shit. My parents’ records were working on the top end, but my songs were all about the bottom. All these dirty-sounding records sounded like they were homemade, which they were, I guess-they were folk music, really. But when I heard ‘Honky Tonk,’ it hit me right here.”

With that Sanborn slaps his still-skinny belly with the palm of his right hand. He is sitting on the almond-leather couch in his Upper West Side brownstone in Manhattan; his two chihuahuas, Miles and Lucy, are yipping and clicking their nails on the room’s shiny parquet floors. The 63-year-old saxophonist’s once-thick, once-dark mane of hair is now a short, salt-and-pepper affair with bangs. But he still has that chiseled jaw line and that disarming affability that once made him such an effective TV host.

He is hosting JazzTimes in his home to promote Here & Gone (Decca), a new album devoted to his primal influence, the saxophone sound of David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford in the Ray Charles Band. The disc features four tunes recorded by Charles and four by Crawford, plus the tribute tune “Brother Ray,” which Sanborn had recorded earlier. But to understand the genesis of the new record-to understand, in fact, Sanborn’s whole career-you have to go back to 1956.

At that time, the Atlanta Hawks were still the St. Louis Hawks and after some of their home games in Missouri’s Kiel Auditorium, the NBA team would host a concert by one of the big bands of the day: Stan Kenton, Count Basie or Benny Goodman, for example. One day Sanborn’s father took him to see a Hawks game followed by the Ray Charles Band, which had recently had a No. 1 R&B hit with “I’ve Got a Woman.” As always, the band played a few numbers before Charles took the stage, but the singer was taking his time this night, so the group played instrumentals for half an hour. Many in the crowd were annoyed, but not Sanborn.

“I’d been hearing so much saxophone on the radio,” he recalls, “that I couldn’t get enough of it. To me, Fathead was as big a star as Ray. He had that same earthy sound, that same punch-in-the-gut feel as my favorite rock ‘n’ roll songs, but I could tell something else was going on too. Some kind of sophisticated inner harmony was happening that reminded me of Benny Goodman or Count Basie. It was as if he were combining my records and my parents’.”

That ability to combine the visceral impact of early R&B with more ambitious harmonies fascinated Sanborn at age 11 and has remained his standard for music-making ever since. The Ray Charles Band was an R&B act, not a jazz combo, but everything the group did was influenced by jazz. The same could be said of the early instrumental projects led by Newman and Crawford. The same could be said of Sanborn’s whole career.

No one would deny Charles’ greatness just because he relied so heavily on riffs, grooves and straightforward chord changes. So who would deny Sanborn’s success within the same parameters? Perhaps that achievement is not as monumental as Charles’, but it’s not so different from Newman’s or Crawford’s. The soft-spoken Sanborn may be too modest to defend his own career, but the bassist on his last three albums has never been one for reticence.

“David has been wrongly dismissed,” Christian McBride declares in his booming voice, “by cerebral-minded critics who have judged him from an Ornette Coleman standpoint. That’s not where David is coming from; he’s coming from R&B, from Ray Charles and Hank Crawford. A lot of jazz critics look down on that as simple and not serious. But we musicians aren’t judging David by Eric Dolphy and Sonny Rollins, because that’s not what he’s trying to do.

“Some music you have to analyze before you get it-and I like that music too; it stimulates the cranium-but some music goes straight into the body. I like Ornette Coleman-and so does David, by the way-but I also like Ray Charles, and I like what David does in that style. He knows his chords, like the rest of us, but he’s not trying to be something he’s not. He’s very funky, and he’s got one of the most identifiable sounds in the history of the music.”

“In the late ’60s, Paul Butterfield’s band was one of my favorites,” says guitarist Bill Frisell, who played on Sanborn’s Another Hand album. “I went to see them then and that was the first time I saw David. I loved his playing then and I love it now. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with him a few times, and he is the real deal. He listens like crazy, and responds to what’s around him. He’s been imitated so much that maybe people forget that he invented his own sound.”

That sound, a remarkable combination of sweetness and tartness, is unmistakable on a tune such as “Basin Street Blues” from the new album. The band takes the old New Orleans standard at a relaxed pace, and Sanborn’s alto sax belts out the melody-and many loose variations on the melody-over the changes like a soul singer. He even works in punctuating pauses like a singer’s breathing. The sweetness comes from his fullness of tone within a narrowly defined pitch, as if he were a classical singer. The tartness comes from a slight rasp in his overtones, as if he were a country singer with a nasal delivery.

Relaxing on his couch in a sky-blue shirt, khakis and brown suede shoes, Sanborn insists that Crawford’s early Atlantic albums mean as much to him as Ornette Coleman’s early Atlantic releases, also personal favorites. But how can that be? How can Crawford’s R&B instrumentals mean as much as Coleman’s precedent-shattering free-jazz breakthrough? How can the first alto saxophonist’s simply constructed blues live up to the second’s leap beyond conventional chord changes? Sanborn has to stop and think about that for a few minutes.

“I want to hear a story from a musician,” he says finally, tentatively, “but there are different ways of telling a story. You can tell a story by deconstructing a song’s harmony and showing another side to it, as Ornette did. But you can also tell a story by sticking to the original harmony and making an emotional connection through your timbre, as Hank did. Both are equally valid to me.”

Warming to his train of thought, he leans forward on the couch. “What differentiates Stan Getz from Arnett Cobb?” he continues. “Both can play ‘There’s a Small Hotel,’ but they’re going to play it differently. Stan might tell the story by extending the harmony in a certain way; Arnett might tell the story by giving the melody that bluesy tone. I might hear Hank in a lower part of my body than I hear Lee Konitz, but I love them both.”

Just as there are many ways to tell a musical story well, there are just as many ways to tell it badly. A grooving blues instrumental can be brilliant or lame, and so can a free-jazz experiment. The difference, Sanborn argues, is that listeners feel more confident in dismissing a formulaic pop instrumental as a sell-out than they do in snubbing an avant-garde project filled with the apparent complexity of a million weird notes.

“If you play music in a mannered way,” he maintains, “it’s going to suck whether you’re imitating John Coltrane or David ‘Fathead’ Newman. It’s just easier to bullshit when you’re imitating Trane, because you can run all those notes and impress some people. What it really comes down to, though, is, are you committed to the moment? You hear it with Coltrane; he’s so fucking committed to each moment. And so is Fathead.”

“Most music that doesn’t move people has an ulterior motive,” McBride adds on the phone a few days later. “People get together and make a game plan. They say, ‘This is what’s hot; let’s make music like that,’ rather than saying, ‘Let’s make music we like.’ Even great musicians stumble into that once in a while. It’s just as possible to make a bad jazz album as it is to make a bad R&B record. The genre or style doesn’t tell you anything. I’d much rather listen to a good rock ‘n’ roll or hip-hop or R&B album than a bad jazz album.”

“You can really tell the difference on ballads,” Sanborn continues, “because there’s no place to hide. I first realized that when I heard Hank play ‘Don’t Cry Baby.’ What got me was the emotion he was able to maintain at a very slow tempo. There were big spaces in that song, but he never lost his concentration. It wasn’t as if he were stopping and starting up again; it was as if he were playing in those spaces even when you didn’t hear anything.”

Sanborn constructs the song from memory right there on the couch. Singing the various parts, he recreates the buzzing thump of the rhythm guitar, the swelling fullness of the horn riffs and on top of it all, Crawford’s alto solo. Holding his right thumb and index finger up as if he could pluck the notes out of the air, he stares up at the recessed wood panels in the ceiling like he was back in his St. Louis bedroom in 1962, hearing Crawford’s second solo album, From the Heart, for the first time. He sustains that stare through the pauses in the solo as if mimicking his hero’s intense focus.

“You don’t know how amazing that is until you try to do it yourself,” he explains. “That empty space comes along and you get nervous. You say to yourself, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to fill that space with something.’ No, you don’t, but that’s the hardest thing to learn. Every day that goes by, I’m more and more convinced that dealing with space is what it’s all about. Whether it’s music or painting or writing, it’s all about filling an empty space. You start with nothing and all of a sudden there’s something. But you have to leave a little of the nothing for the something to mean anything.

“Listen to Miles Davis or Wayne Shorter; they got it. People were always mystified when Miles said he was influenced by Ahmad Jamal, but I think Miles was talking about the way Ahmad dealt with space.”

Back in 1956, the 11-year-old Sanborn was mesmerized by the Ray Charles Band’s warm-up set when the sound system suddenly cut out. The youngster was at the opposite end of the arena, but he could hear Newman’s unamplified tenor saxophone ringing out over the murmuring crowd. That sealed the deal. Right then and there he wanted to play the sax.

His cause got a boost when doctors recommended to his parents that the polio-stricken child take up a wind instrument to help his breathing. His cause received a setback, however, when his music teacher told his parents that David would have to leave the grade-school band. “He’s slowing down the other students,” the teacher said.

Sanborn was undeterred. He would get together with his school pal Teddy Stewart, a drummer, and play along to their favorite records. On weekends, they’d check out the bands that played the dances at the local record center. Because this was Missouri in the early ’60s, two of those bands were led by the blues giants Little Milton and Albert King. Stewart befriended Little Milton’s piano player and convinced him to let his 14-year-old friend Sanborn to sit in.

Because he had a baby face and a polio-weakened body, Sanborn looked four years younger than he really was, so the musicians were astounded that this apparent 10-year-old could play the blues. That novelty factor provided an entrée into many situations, and the young alto player got lots of nightclub experience before he graduated from high school. He fell in with a bunch of St. Louis musicians that no one had heard of at the time: Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Phillip Wilson and Hamiet Bluiett.

“It was this bohemian scene where we weren’t worried about our careers,” Sanborn remembers. “It was like being in college without being in college. Fontella Bass had just come out of the Clara Ward Singers, and she was living with Lester. Whenever a new record came out-like Miles’ My Funny Valentine-we’d all go over to Lester and Fontella’s and listen to the record over and over and be blown away. Everyone had a real open attitude. We’d play a free-jazz gig and then an R&B gig and then go to a bebop jam, and it didn’t matter. We were up for anything. The jazz we were playing had so much blues in it that there wasn’t much difference.

“Gaslight Square was like the Greenwich Village of St. Louis, except that it was only three blocks long. That little world gave me everything I wanted; I could feel real there. But outside of that area, the world was different; the movie theaters in St. Louis were still segregated. I’d say, ‘Let’s got to such-and-such a place,’ and my friends would mumble, ‘No, we really can’t go there.’ I’d say, ‘What do you mean?’ That was my awakening to the tragedy of racial prejudice in America. At first I was baffled; then I was angry. These guys had given me so much; I hated to see them treated that way.”

Sanborn found a larger and wilder version of Gaslight Square when he moved to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in 1967 to join his old pal Stewart in the full flower of hippiedom. Before long, he ran into another Missouri buddy, Phillip Wilson, on the sidewalk. Wilson had just landed the drummer’s job in the Butterfield Blues Band, and he invited Sanborn to the L.A. recording sessions for The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw the next day. Sanborn took the bus, hung out at the studio and ended up playing on the session.

Soon he was on the road with Butterfield, a four-year run that included a helicopter ride over the gridlocked roads to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, where the band went on after Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and before Sha Na Na and Jimi Hendrix. That led to a stint with Stevie Wonder’s road band and then a strange period when he was playing with both David Bowie and Gil Evans.

“Once I finished one tour with Bowie at Madison Square Garden and caught a midnight flight to Rome the same night,” Sanborn remembers. “I got a ride to Perugia, and that night I went on with Gil right after Mingus. I dug that I was able to do both gigs one after the other. It wasn’t as much of an adjustment as you’d think. I played the same; only the context had changed. My job is to respond appropriately to the context, and when the context has more harmonies happening, you respond to that.

“One day during that period I was over at Gil’s house in the far West Village when Miles came over. Gil was playing a tape of our show the night before at the Vanguard and my solo came on. I thought, ‘Oh, fuck, this is Miles listening to me play.’ I played one of those no-way-out notes, and it just hung there. Miles looked at me and said, ‘You should have played it twice.’ That was Miles; for him there were no mistakes, just opportunities. I always heard a great similarity between Hank and Miles, that sense that the spaces between the notes mattered as much as the notes you did play.”

In 1975, Sanborn released his first solo album, Taking Off, which sold respectably. At the time, he was playing in Paul Simon’s band and met Simon’s longtime producer Phil Ramone, who agreed to produce the sophomore effort, Sanborn. Paul Simon wrote a song for it, and the disc broke into the Top 10 of the jazz charts and the top-60 of the R&B charts. When Sanborn joined James Taylor’s band, the singer allowed the saxophonist to open the shows. That helped Sanborn’s fifth album, 1979’s Hideaway, become a No. 2 jazz hit and No. 33 R&B hit.

Sanborn had to make a decision. Should he stick with his lucrative sideman career? Or should he commit to being a solo act? He took the plunge and his next four releases were No. 1 jazz albums and Top 40 R&B albums. By the late ’80s, though, the settings for Sanborn’s distinctive sound were becoming more and more predictable, more dependent on synths and drum machines. It was a trap, and he discovered the escape hatch in 1988 when he was invited to host Night Music (aka Sunday Night Music), perhaps the most innovative music show ever on network television.

Producer Hal Willner delighted in creating unexpected juxtapositions-Al Green singing with the Sun Ra Arkestra, Leonard Cohen singing with Sonny Rollins, Nick Cave singing with Charlie Haden. With his ability to play jazz changes, R&B riffs or folk-rock motifs, Sanborn provided the glue that held everything together. The TV show only lasted two seasons, but the saxophonist was reinvigorated by the experience. He teamed up with Willner, Haden, Bill Frisell, Jack DeJohnette and many other penetrating musicians to record 1991’s Another Hand, the only straight-ahead jazz album Sanborn has made as a leader.

The subsequent albums returned to the R&B/jazz territory where he felt most comfortable, but there was more emphasis on traditional instruments and arrangements. When he signed with Verve/Decca Records in 2003, Sanborn assembled the studio band that still features McBride on acoustic bass, Steve Gadd on drums, Russell Malone on hollowbody electric guitar, Gil Goldstein on Wurlitzer piano and Ricky Peterson on B3 organ. Somewhat paradoxically, Sanborn considers this an acoustic combo.

“Yeah,” he says, “I know the Wurlitzer and the B3 aren’t really acoustic instruments, but I think of them that way, because they open up the dynamic range in a similar way. When you’re playing with electric bass, solidbody electric guitar or synthesizer, they all operate in my frequency and wipe out the dynamic range I can explore. They can turn up their volume by twisting a dial, but if I play harder, I lose color. But with the acoustic bass, hollowbody guitar, Wurlitzer and B3, I can hear the spit in my playing. That’s when I know the sound is right.”

Sanborn was downloading his record collection onto his iPod two years ago and when he came across his Hank Crawford discs, he sat down and listened to them again. It all came back to him: those crucial years in his late teens when he obsessed over Crawford’s Atlantic sides. Crawford was the chief arranger for the Ray Charles Band in those years, and he often used those same musicians on the sessions.

“The last time I saw Ray,” Sanborn relates, “he went on and on about how important Hank was to his sound. ‘Those charts he did for me were so great,’ Ray said. Then he added, ‘But that motherfucker got me to stop playing alto. After I heard him, I had to stop playing.’ Hank’s charts were amazing. They did the same thing Ray was doing with his voice and piano-they had that earthy gospel and R&B feel, but they also had sophisticated jazz harmonies.”

Those memories propelled Sanborn to make the Hank Crawford tribute album he’d long been thinking about. The fact that Crawford has been ill recently added new urgency to the project. Reuniting with Phil Ramone as producer, Sanborn began with “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” from Crawford’s 1961 The Soul Clinic album, “Stoney Lonesome” and “What Will I Tell My Heart?” from Crawford’s 1962 From the Heart and “St. Louis Blues” from Crawford’s 1998 After Dark. That was the project’s core.

To these Sanborn added a total of four pieces from the two albums Ray Charles released in 1961, Genius + Soul = Jazz and Genius Sings the Blues, and Marcus Miller’s “Brother Ray,” a tribute tune that Sanborn had recorded earlier on his 1999 album Inside. Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers’ Derek Trucks added blues-rock guitar to “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” and “Brother Ray,” respectively; Clapton also sang on his song as did Joss Stone on “I Believe to My Soul” and Sam and Dave’s Sam Moore on “I’ve Got News for You.”

“I didn’t worry too much about imitating Hank,” Sanborn confesses, “because he’s so much a part of how I play. In a way, I’m busting myself by revealing where I’m coming from. The way I put pauses in my solos like a singer breathing, the way I play double time without it sounding like double time-I get all that from Hank. I figured if I was sincere about it, if I was honest about how much this music means to me, my own personality would come through.”

Sanborn has a mental list of albums he’d like to do. He’d like to make another album like Another Hand with Willner. He’d like to make an organ combo record with Joey DeFrancesco. But no matter what the project, he says, the emphasis will still be on the melody, groove and emotion.

“If you’re just going to play the head and then go off on a solo that has nothing to do with the head, why play the tune?” he asks. “I don’t get it. Why not just write a new tune? That’s what I loved about Miles. He always played the tune. Maybe he went off on a solo, but you could always tell it was the song. There’s something about the mood, the feeling of the song that you have to reflect in your solos. Otherwise, what’s the point?” JT


David Sanborn plays a Mark VI Selmer alto saxophone with Vandoren reeds. He uses a Shure SM98 microphone suspended from a tripod over the bell of his horn. He has days, though, when he regrets ever learning the saxophone. “Sometimes,” he admits, “I curse the instrument, because you’re always fucking with reeds and pads. Because of the weather these days it’s hard to find a reed that lasts more than a day or two. It’s like mowing the lawn every day.

“I used to think it was just me, but one time I met Benny Goodman and he told me, ‘Man, you should talk to my wife. My house is littered with reeds on every shelf and table.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, if Benny Goodman has trouble with reeds, I don’t feel so bad.’ And then there are those days when you have a good reed, the horn sounds great and the band is playing well. That’s the juice. That’s what keeps us coming back.” Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.