A publicity photo of alto saxophonist David Sanborn. Photo by Scott Chernis.
Saxophonist David Sanborn is often associated with the sound or style know as “smooth jazz”. He has, after all, been a featured artist a number of times on the annual Smooth Jazz Cruise. That cruise bills itself as The Greatest Party at Sea, but for some jazz musicians and aficionados, “smooth jazz” is a pejorative. It’s thus not surprising that Sanborn can be a bit defensive about the label:
JazzMonthly Magazine: The term smooth jazz has a negative connotation to some, even many people in the industry who work with artists who have been labeled under that format branding. What do you think of it? Do you think it’s an accurate description for the music it signifies?
David Sanborn: I never understood what exactly the term meant from the beginning. It didn’t make sense to me and I never figured out what is and isn’t smooth jazz.
The truth is that Sanborn has always shown great range in his music. For starters, he played with blues legend Albert King while Sanborn was still in his teens. Since then, he’s recorded 29 albums with top billing, plus dozens more as a contributor, in all manners of styles. His great 2010 album Only Everything, for example, moves fluently from blues to R&B to soul. His version of the Latin dance song “Bang Bang” is as good as anything in that genre.
Sanborn has been a popular, influential, and versatile musician almost from the beginning of his prolific career, now over 40 years ago. In 1975, the year his first solo album, Taking Off, dropped, Sanborn also appeared on three classic rock albums: Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and David Bowie’s Young Americans. Overall, Sanborn has won 6 Grammy Awards, plus 8 gold albums and 1 that went platinum. Add in 150 or so appearances as a sideman on other artists’ albums and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone as prolific and consistently top-notch. With this long track record of success, last night’s concert at the Dakota Jazz Club was hotly anticipated. Sanborn brought along his current quintet: Michael Dease on trombone, Geoffrey Keezer on piano and keyboards, James Genus on bass, and Billy Kilson on drums.
The program was not an evening of smooth jazz. it was closer to the mixture of funk, world music, and R&B found on Sanborn’s most recent album, Time and the River (2015). The quintet began with two Michael Brecker numbers, “Tumbleweed” and “Half Moon Lane”. Immediately after that, the group played an intriguing re-working of “Maputo”, a popular song that Sanborn recorded with Bob James. “Maputo” (which one does hear often on smooth jazz radio stations) was, in the performance, now propelled by a sharper, West African beat.
The closest to smooth jazz Sanborn came to in the night’s set was in the Tommy Edwards song “Its All in the Game”. However, this was quickly followed by a bebop version of D’Angelo’s “Spanish Joint” and a soul-filled version of Wycliffe Gordon’s “On the Spot”.
Sanborn was well-supported by the rest of the quintet. Especially impressive was Keezer’s keyboard playing (the pianist has two Grammy nominations of his own). On a number of occasions, Keezer multitasked, playing the piano with his left hand while manipulating the keyboards with his right. Dease also had a number of striking trombone solos, and was often “in dialogue” with Sanborn, trading phrases through many of the numbers.
The David Sanborn Quintet returns to the Dakota for two more shows this evening. Catch them if you can!