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Even if you’re not a jazz fan, you know the saxophone sound of David Sanborn. You know it because he played the 1975 sax intro and parts on David Bowie’s “Young Americans”.

Or you know it because you heard the Lethal Weapon soundtrack from the ‘80s or you used to watch L.A. Law and know that theme song, which starts with just Sanborn alone playing a blues lick—or maybe you’ve heard of Bryan Ferry, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Paul Simon or one of the other giant pop stars to whose records he has contributed his saxophonic cry.

cover art

David Sanborn and Bob James

Quartette Humaine

(Okeh; US: 21 May 2013; UK: 21 May 2013)

Plenty have said it before: Sanborn may be the most imitated man in instrumental music. His ripe rasp on alto saxophone has been aped a thousand times over. Yet he has always gotten work because he remains unique and authentic at the same time. Sweet and soulful at once, yearning but tough—he has what ought to be considered one the great tones on the instrument.

It brings to mind what John Coltrane allegedly said the silky-toned Stan Getz (both tenor saxophone players): “Let’s face it—we’d all sound like him if we could.”

But curiously, Sanborn has gotten little respect in true jazz circles, even though jazz purists are the first to say that your most important job as a jazz player is to “find your sound” on your instrument. True, Sanborn is best known as a solo artist for albums in a pop/soul-jazz vein—maybe not quite “smooth jazz”, though he’s guilty some there, too. They’ve won Grammys (an indictment, I’m afraid, rather than praise), and they’ve been his calling card.

But Sanborn has acquitted himself admirably as a “real” jazz player too: as a sideman with avant-garde player Tim Berne on 1993’s Diminutive Mysteries, on his own austere disc Another Hand (1991, featuring Bill Frisell, among others), and in a variety of albums, as well.

Now, he and fellow smoothie, pianist Bob James, are releasing an all-acoustic album in a straight-ahead vein called Quartette Humaine. I suppose it could be a bid for more “legit” acclaim as a jazz player, but I hear it as something more sincere, an expression of one thing that’s been inside Sanborn (and James) for a long time: a plain love of melody as well as rhythm and soul.

And when you want to hear a melody played on an alto saxophone, why not hear it played with a sound as compelling as Sanborn’s?

Quartette Humaine is a good jazz recording, wholly on its own. The rest of the band is terrific: James Genus on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. (Gadd is arguably the Dave Sanborn of his instrument: a much-copied virtuoso with a distinct sound who made his nut playing fusion and pop but whose jazz chops are undeniable.) And while this is not a recording designed to push the envelope of the jazz art, it’s not any kind of watered down pseudo-jazz. In fact, it is a mature recording that features warm writing, intelligent improvising, and a band that is keenly listening as it plays together.

The notes to the recording suggest that James and Sanborn, at the time of the recording, were thinking about the recent death of pianist Dave Brubeck and his long-time partner on alto sax, Paul Desmond. Quartette Humaine is certainly not a Brubeck tribute, and neither leader sounds much like their analogue—but there are a few choice similarities. Sanborn plays here as not just he melody instrument but really as a distinctive “sound” that rides above an attentive but subordinate rhythm section. Gadd, for all his famous virtuosity as a player, spends lots of time running brushes over his snare and keeping it chill. Each tune seems designed to let Sanborn do what Paul Desmond did so well: state a strong melody in a tone that cuts right to your heart.

A great example is “Sophia”, a delicious ballad written by Sanborn and introduced by James’s gentle chording, featuring a minor melody stated with aching care by Sanborn. The alto reaching for keening high notes, tracing the melody without extra elaboration, just a whiskey tone that is wistful and throbbing. The first solo is for James—simple but elegant, and constructed with genuine grace. Sanborn’s solo is simply wonderful: not exactly a restatement of the melody, but something utterly rare in jazz in that he plays just a part of the form and references the melody frequently, elaborating with cuts and patterns and thrilling additions.

“Another Time, Another Place” is also a Sanborn tune. This one rides on a dramatic snare pattern by Gadd and a rolling piano accompaniment that makes the ground beneath the sax solo seem to be constantly shifting. Sanborn plays like a master, quoting lick from “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” from Porgy and Bess while building something dramatic and original. The other Sanborn original is “Genevieve”, which boast a melody that aches for lyrics in its simple movement through different harmonies. It’s another ballad with Gadd skipping things along, Genus rolling out the chords with marvelous fullness, and James seeming never to lack for ideas.

When it’s time for Sanborn to go to his improvisation, he sounds as legitimate as a jazz saxophonist can sound. His constructions have shape and drama, they are harmonically rich, and the playing could be that of no one else—someone school equally in Hank Crawford and Cannonball Adderley, in the American pop music of greats like Paul Simon and Gershwin but also steeped in the kind of instrumental storytelling that jazz has always been best at.

This appreciation of Sanborn, in the end, really isn’t an argument. Arraying years of evidence seems beside the point. A couple of bars of his playing will tell you that he plays with passion, always. And the sum of this new record—modest, not earth-shaking, but lovely and yearning and perfectly real as “jazz” or just as fine music, beyond some category. It’s an expression of joy that sounds joyful because it carries that Sanborn signature sound well beyond its value for a TV theme or even a grooving jam.

On Quartette Humaine, David Sanborn gets to marry his sound to something that feels complete and whole, something passionately moving but still clear. That’s jazz to me.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.

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