David Sanborn May Not Be Cool -- But He's Sure Copied a Lot

Press photo from David (photographer unknown)

David 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's gotten little respect in true jazz circles.

David Sanborn and Bob James

Quartette Humaine

US Release: 2013-05-21
UK Release: 2013-05-21
Label: Okeh

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.

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.