Back to the Blues

This article originally appeared in the summer 2010 issue of JAZZIZ.

Saxophonist David Sanborn has covered a lot of ground in his career. But on his most recent work, he’s happily returned to his roots.

By Bob Weinberg

This was not the kind of music one expects to hear in the daylight. Attired all in black, and wearing shades against the late-afternoon sun, iconic saxman David Sanborn joined Hammond-B3 wizard Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Gene Lake on-stage at the Sun Life Stadium grounds in Miami Gardens in March. Starting out with the slinky “Comin’ Home Baby” and the deeply bluesy “Brother Ray,” the trio launched into a set of greasy, juke-joint-styled numbers that seemed more fitting to nocturnal pursuits.

Just a month earlier, the New Orleans Saints had trounced the favored Indianapolis Colts here. Still, once Sanborn raised his alto to his lips and began to blow the blues, no one was echoing the Saints’ taunting cry of “Who dat?” After all, Sanborn’s steamy sax is among the most recognizable instrumental voices in popular music.

Nonetheless, a somewhat sparse crowd had shown up for his set at the two-day Jazz in the Gardens festival. Comprising mostly contemporary R&B performers such as Robin Thicke and Mary J. Blige, the roster was punctuated by Sanborn and fellow jazz artists Joe Sample and Cassandra Wilson. After Sanborn’s brief but potent set, crowds grew exponentially for evening headliners Boyz II Men and John Legend. Tan, trim and seemingly relaxed, the saxophonist thanked the crowd for attending. “I don’t take it for granted that people will show up,” he said, only half-joking, from the stage.

Not that Sanborn, who had just returned from a 10-day European tour with his trio and who turns 65 in July, needs to worry. From his signature solos on huge hits by David Bowie and James Taylor to his string of classic contempo-jazz albums in the 1970s and ’80s, Sanborn has enjoyed the recognition most jazz artists can only dream of. His recordings of the past 35 years have ascended the jazz, R&B and pop charts and earned him an armload of Grammys. In April, he collected a George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed upon him by the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards. And yet, it seems that the saxophonist must prove himself each time out, especially to straightahead jazz fans suspicious of or downright hostile toward his crossover success.

A pair of recent recordings for the Decca label might just do the trick. The 2008 blues revue Here & Gone and this year’s Only Everything both pay loving homage to Ray Charles and especially his saxmen, Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman. Crowd-pleasers to be sure, both recordings keep the spotlight directly on Sanborn’s blues and jazz roots. And each found receptive ears: Here & Gone hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart, while Only Everything peaked at No. 11 on the Jazz Albums chart. For anyone who had been paying attention, this wasn’t so much a change of direction as a homecoming.

“Part of what these last few records are is my attempt to put myself — the way I’ve always heard myself — in the context that seems the most appropriate,” Sanborn related by phone from a hotel in Berlin, Germany, this spring. “Because in my mind, I’ve never really changed the way I play, from the time I started out in St. Louis through all the different situations I found myself in. Whether it was James Taylor or David Bowie or Gil Evans or James Brown or Miles Davis, I pretty much played the same way. For lack of a better explanation, people hired me to be me. And I was always coming from the Hank Crawford/David ’Fathead’ Newman school of thought.”

Nineteen-fifty-six was a momentous year in Sanborn’s life. Stricken with polio at an early age, the 11-year-old Sanborn, at his doctor’s suggestion, took up the saxophone to improve his wind. Of course, that was also the year Ray Charles came to town.

“It had a profound effect on me,” Sanborn affirms, recalling the emotions stirred in him by Brother Ray’s concert at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. “He was all over the radio at the time. He was very popular because the rock ’n’ roll/rhythm-and-blues scene was kinda just starting out.”

In addition to Charles’ fiery performance, Sanborn also witnessed the band’s twin-sax engine of Crawford and Newman. The distinctive and deeply expressive voices of the saxmen — particularly Crawford’s smoky-sweet alto cry — grabbed hold of his soul. “The message of this music came across like lightning,“ he reminisces in the liner notes to Only Everything. “Get a saxophone.”

And, certainly, sax was king in those days. Following the lead of jump-blues  giant Louis Jordan, early rockers such as Little Richard and Fats Domino featured the horn prominently on their classic sides. Growing up in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood, Sanborn hungrily consumed the music being broadcast on local Black radio. On some nights, he could even pick up broadcasts from Memphis and Chicago.

A teenage Sanborn had no trouble slipping into the local jazz and blues clubs with his horn, usually latching onto older musicians. “Gaslight Square was kind of a bohemian section of town,“ he recalls. “It was a little bit manufactured, a little theme-park kind of thing. But there were a lot of small jazz clubs up and down that strip. It was a pretty active scene. And there were a lot of jazz clubs along Delmar [Boulevard], and even more in East St. Louis [Illinois]. I got a lot of my playing experience over there. There was a club called the Blue Note, where I worked quite a bit.”

East St. Louis truly hit the skids with the crack epidemic of the 1980s, but Sanborn says the area, even back in the 1960s, was extremely rough. As an undersize white kid, his safety was never a given. “I saw an awful lot of stuff go down over there. It was pretty wide open,” he notes. Not that it deterred him. And he says he never really experienced any overt racial hostility.

“I was really very lucky in that regard,” he says. “I was always treated with a kind of acceptance. I never felt that I was being excluded, which was even more profound, because St. Louis was still pretty much segregated. My high school was segregated up until a year before I went there.”

“We like to beat ourselves up, but it wasn’t Selma [Alabama],” says St. Louis artist and author Kevin Belford, whose recent book, Devil at the Confluence, examines the pre-war St. Louis music scene. “You can go all the way back to [white musicians Frankie] Trumbauer and Bix [Beiderbecke]; they worked together at a hotel in the ‘nice’ part of town. Then, at night, they’d drive down Delmar to the Black areas and play with those guys.”

The confluence alluded to in Belford’s book title refers to St. Louis’ prime placement along the Mississippi. As he explains, a confluence in a river is where its tributaries come together and make it bigger and better. “And after the confluence, you can’t tell what water came from where,” he says.

Sanborn also recognizes the importance of St. Louis’ placement along the river as vital to the blues that grew up there. He strongly credits the African-American diaspora that took place in the first half of the century, in which Black Southerners migrated north to industrial cities. “When the blues hit the city and got electrified, and it morphed into a music that reflected both the rural roots and an urban sensibility, it still retained that basic, emotional yearning of the blues,” he says. “And that’s what the blues always was to me: a yearning, a reaching, a striving for something. Whether it was an effort to explain something or a spiritual reach or a cry, there was always an aspect of yearning to the music.”

Sanborn has never been shy about expressing his affection for Ray, Hank and Fathead. On 2008’s Here & Gone, he revisited classics by these major influences in the company of old friends Eric Clapton and Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave fame) and new associates Derek Trucks and Joss Stone. While young Brit soul-sensation Stone reprises her vocal turn on Only Everything’s romp through “Let the Good Times Roll,” and longtime pal James Taylor takes the mike on “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” for the most part, Sanborn leads his crackerjack band through a set of instrumental jukebox jazz and R&B. And with DeFrancesco whirling the Leslies, Bob Malach and Frank Basile contributing tenor and baritone sax parts respectively, Steve Gadd spanking the skins and veteran producer Phil Ramone twiddling the knobs, Sanborn vividly conjures the milieu.

The catalyst for these affectionate salutes, Sanborn says, was sparked as he downloaded music to his iPod a few years ago. Among the gems he wanted to download were Crawford’s 1962 Atlantic album From the Heart, which he says he “went to school on” when he first heard it at age 17. He interpreted three cuts from the album on Here & Gone, but saved its best-known tune, “The Peeper,” for Only Everything. Sanborn also tackled Newman’s most-famous cut, “Hard Times,” from the 1958 Atlantic album Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman. Redoing the tune almost seemed sacrilegious.

“That’s the definitive Fathead Newman song, and I stayed away from it for years because, in my mind, its was so iconic,” Sanborn says. “But then I thought, ‘You know what? I cannot live my life and not do that song. I gotta do it.’ It’s very much a tip of the hat to Fathead.”

During his long career, Sanborn came to know Charles, Newman and Crawford, all of whom have since died. He grew closest to Crawford, with whom he played and recorded in the 1970s and ’80s.

“It was incredibly intimidating,” he confirms, “because I felt like what I was doing was just imitating him. And he certainly didn’t let on that he felt that way. He was always really nice to me.”

Crawford’s sound is deeply embedded in Sanborn’s musical DNA. Regardless of the genre, Sanborn calls up Hank in nearly every note he plays, expanding on the ideas he first heard emanating from the grooves of those early LPs.

“What was great about Hank is he had a real elegance and simplicity to his playing, very emotionally direct,” Sanborn explains. “And an economy with notes, and the idea that you could play one note and have it mean a lot; you don’t have to play a lot of notes to get your point across. I think subconsciously that impressed itself on me early. I mean, I’m way guilty of playin’ too many notes. Because sometimes it’s like: [scats] ’Igottatellyouyoudon’tknowyoudon’tunderstandohIgottatellya.’ And before you know it, you’ve played nine zillion notes. And that’s all well and good, but you can also make your point, and more effectively, with fewer notes.”

For a sterling example, cue up the gorgeous title track to Only Everything. Inspired by the birth of his granddaughter, Genevieve, the saxophonist penned the tune the night before he brought it into the studio.

“I just showed the [chord] changes to everybody, and we just sort of did a run-through,” Sanborn says. “And at the end, I thought, ‘Well, this sounds pretty good.’ And I said, ‘Phil, why don’t we tape this?’ And he said, ‘I already did.’ And that’s the version that’s on the record.”

From the musical selections to the instrumentation to Sanborn’s impassioned playing, the personal nature of Only Everything is immediately apparent. Even its title tips a hand to its significance to the artist. What do Hank and Ray and Fathead mean to him? Or the birth of a granddaughter? Only everything.

“It’s kind of a hyperbolic expression in a way,” he relates. “I think it expressed a certain kind of joy and positivity. And a kind of focus. It felt like a pilgrimage, in a way, to these stations of the cross. It was kind of a journey, putting myself in the context that I’d always heard myself.”

Sanborn’s continuing journey has not been mapped out or calculated. From the beginning, he says, his decisions have been determined by his desire to play the music at hand. Whether he was blowing the blues with the Butterfield Blues Band or funking it up in a studio session with the Brecker Brothers, Sanborn says he’s followed his muse where it’s led him, regardless of what critics or fans might think.

“I’m very selfish in the sense that I play the music that excites and interests me,” he explains. “And though I’m very grateful that audiences will respond, for the most part, my primary motivation is not to figure out what the audience wants and then give them that kind of music. I try to play music that I believe in, that I’m sincere about. And that’s what people relate to, that passion.”


Featured photo: Alice Soyer Sanborn.

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