Sanborn Reimagines ‘Night Music’ for the 21st Century

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When David Sanborn talks to people during tours, they often bring up Night Music (aka Sunday Night), the late-night TV show the alto saxophonist hosted from 1988 to 1990. But it’s not just fans who remember the show fondly for its emphasis on live performances that frequently mixed musicians from different genres. Musicians bring it up, too.

“The idea of that show was that genres are secondary, an artificial division of music that really isn’t necessary; that musicians have more in common than people expect,” Sanborn said. “We wanted to represent that by having a show where Leonard Cohen could sing a song, Sonny Rollins could play a song, and then they could do something together. I felt that was something that needed to be said and reinforced. When that show ended, I was glad we had it as long as we did, but I always wanted to try it again.”

In 2017, Sanborn was talking about the show over dinner with his brother-in-law, Steve Friedman, and Friedman’s son, Noah. Noah just had graduated from Boston University and had friends who were focused on video production. He said it now was relatively easy to record a show on your own and get it up on the internet. His father and uncle were intrigued and decided to give it a shot.

The new show, Sanborn Sessions, hasn’t yet gone live, but there is a 14-minute sampler of the first two episodes. It’s enough to demonstrate how the new production resembles the old one—and how it doesn’t.

The biggest difference is that where Night Music resembled a live concert on a proscenium stage with the camera as an audience member in the auditorium seats, Sanborn Sessions resembles a recording session in a home studio with the camera as a guest, leaning against the wall. The old show was about presenting a rehearsed, finished arrangement; the new show is about the process of coming up with that arrangement.

“The Sanborn Sessions is more of a fly-on-the-wall thing than Night Music,” the host said. “This is what it’s like when musicians hang out and play together. This is the shit we play when we play for each other, and this is the shit we talk about when we’re hanging out. Why did we take this approach? Some of it is economics, some of it is that I find this more interesting.”

What’s the same about the new show is Sanborn’s ability to put his fellow musicians at ease and get them to talk about their backstory, as well as their approach to music. The genre-crossing is the same, and so is the crucial role of a house band to act as the glue between performers who’ve never met and come from different backgrounds. On Night Music, it was the band of Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Philippe Saisse, Hiram Bullock and Omar Hakim. For Sanborn Sessions, the house band is Sanborn, bassist Ben Williams, drummer Billy Kilson and keyboardist Andy Ezrin—the core of Sanborn’s acoustic touring band (he also tours with a separate electric band).

“On both shows,” Sanborn said, “the house band has a real chemistry. So, right off the bat, we have good communication with one another. We’ve worked on a lot of different records in a lot of different styles, so we knew how to come up with arrangements quickly. The people who came in without their own band are amazingly amenable to adapting to the band.”

The shows are filmed at Sanborn’s home in Tarrytown, New York, a house that boasts a studio with a high cathedral ceiling and French windows that look out through trees on to the Hudson River Valley. The dining room is adjacent, and the musicians gather there to eat and talk about music. In the first episode, French jazz-pop singer Cyrille Aimée and Brazilian percussionist Sergio Krakowski play separately and together; in the second episode it’s guitarist Charlie Hunter and singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke.

While it’s a lot cheaper to produce an internet show than a network TV show, the musicians and technicians still need to be paid. So, Sanborn and the two Friedmans are using crowdfunding site IndieGoGo to raise money to film more episodes. They hope to launch the show early next year, though the frequency of episodes still is in the works, Steve Friedman said. Each episode is expected to run between 15 and 30 minutes.

“This is the real deal,” Sanborn said. “It’s not people putting on their personas; it’s a looser format, and something more interesting comes out of it. When you’re hanging out or rehearsing, you go for things you wouldn’t go for in a performance for an audience. You get a better look at who the people really are. There’s an intimacy that works really well on the internet.” DB



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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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