David Sanborn was the most salient alto saxophonist of the ’70s and ’80s, a musician who parlayed his visceral, immediately recognizable sound into a successful solo career that netted half a dozen Grammy Awards and spawned, somewhat to his chagrin, the genre now known as smooth jazz.
But Sanborn’s roots are laid deep in the blues—he played with Albert King when he was 14—and he also came up around avant-gardists in St Louis. DownBeat caught a set by Sanborn in the spring at Chicago’s Promontory in Hyde Park and spoke on the phone with him this fall before a six-night run at Manhattan’s Blue Note Club. Despite his considerable fame and influence, Sanborn remains disarmingly self-effacing and enthusiastic about his fellow saxophonists and the scene at large.
You reminisced with the audience at the Promontory about your days in Chicago in the early ’60s, when you were studying music at Northwestern. You recalled jamming at fabled club McKees on the South Side with Sonny Stitt and that he “cleaned your clock.” What did you mean by that?
“Cleaned my clock” meant “told me what time it was, took me to school!” It was an instructive moment, everything I thought I was was eliminated in about 30 seconds or less. [My saxophone teacher] Joe Daley took me down there, as he knew Sonny; it might have been Maurice White, later of Earth Wind and Fire fame, on drums.
I was thrilled and terrified. Joe said “Go up there!” and probably suspected what was going to happen. I knew Cherokee in B-flat but wasn’t expecting the move up to B and so on. It taught me the lesson about being fluent in all keys. That kind of competition on the bandstand was a hallmark of the jazz scene in Chicago. Who could really navigate the changes? Now rap guys have taken over that kind of cutting. I never really subscribed to that aspect of music because there are many ways of playing. I don’t consider it a competition. You either like the way someone plays or that story or you don’t. Maybe that person is just having a good night.
You had a lot of early experience playing alongside singers, notably in the company of Michael and Randy Brecker, whom you frequently recorded with as a section. What do you think you and Brecker taught each other?
To say Mike possibly learned something from me is laughable. Both he and Randy were extraordinary players with great command of their instruments and taste and personality. I loved that last album Mike made, Pilgrimage, with Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau and Jack De Johnette—Mike hadn’t picked up a horn for a year because of his health problems. Pat Metheny told me, “Mike wiped the floor with all of us.”
I’d say I learned a little about chromaticism from him and the ability to absorb a sequence and play one note within that sequence to break up the pattern and burrow through the chords. How to build lines and develop chromatic shapes and again, gain facility in all keys.
You played with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Beck, Elton John, Roger Waters and James Taylor. But your most storied moment came with David Bowie on the indelible “Young Americans.” How was it working with Bowie, who, like Van Morrison, always wanted to be a saxophonist himself?
I saw Van not long ago at Ronnie Scott’s in London and was talking with him after our set. He told me “As an alto saxophonist I’m more of a primitive, a folk artist,” but he was playing the horn all right. People also put down Ray Charles as a saxophonist but he could play the heck out of the alto. On the Young Americans tour, Bowie would sometimes let the band play for 20 minutes before he came on. I remember we had a week at the Universal Amphitheater in L.A. It was a great rhythm section with Doug Rauch on bass and Greg Enrico on drums. On the Young Americans album there was no lead guitar, so I played the role of lead guitar. I was all over that record.
I missed the “Fame” session though. I was touring with Gil Evans so I lost my chance to work with John Lennon, who co-wrote the song and I’m 90 percent certain is singing backup vocals. It was some of the most fun I’ve had, working with Bowie, one of the great pleasures of my life and I don’t regret a single day of it.
There were moments during your show in Chicago where you were just playing textures and timbre. It could have been Julius Hemphill.
I love sounds and colors, and using everything available in the service of the music. If you just concentrate on notes per se, music can become kinda like typing. I came up in St Louis with Julius, Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Phillip Wilson. Phillip was a very close friend. If you go back to Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, phrasing nuance and texture was always important—think of Johnny Hodges playing “Passion Flower.” I also loved the subtle way Paul Desmond played, the light, airy sound, the great ideas and time. He was one of my favorite musicians ever.
Experimentalist Anthony Braxton was a devotee of Desmond too.
I was there when Braxton met Lee Konitz and Anthony sang Lee’s solo on “Subconscious Lee” back to him note for note. Lee was floored. People make suppositions, but musicians can sometimes surprise you as to the music they listen to.
I’m not so interested in what is or isn’t jazz. The guardians of the gate can be quite combative, but what are they protecting? Jazz has always absorbed and transformed what’s around it. It’s not like “When the cha-cha went away, music died.” Writers have a vested interest in creating conflict too, sometimes it seems as though they don’t want to like something that everybody loves, but I never cross anybody off. I mean, some young player on the internet claimed Wayne Shorter couldn’t play! They used to say that about Miles. It’s not a contest. Is Clifford Brown a better player than Miles Davis? Wayne and Miles came out of bebop but they also transcended it. Real musicians don’t have any time to spend thinking about limited categories.
Stylistically, you like to try things, on Closer (Verve 2005) you delve into a South African township vibe on “Capetown Fringe.” How did that come about?
I have a friend named Morris Goldberg, who plays the penny whistle on Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” He was from South Africa. Morris and I talked about the essence of that subtle South African time feel, which is a little like calypso, but I never really felt I got inside it, it’s deceptively simple. I guess I’d give myself an E for Effort.
You don’t seem to have lost an iota of enthusiasm for music. It all seems to telescope back to those days playing the blues in St Louis.
We used to go hear these musicians like Little Milton and Albert King at what were known as teen towns—recreation centers, where there’d be a swimming pool, a bandstand, a dance. There’d be no alcohol but regular touring bands like the Chi-lites, Ike and Tina, Chuck Berry as well as Milton and Albert. I was about 14 and I befriended this older guy, Rick Bolden (probably himself only 16 or 17), who played piano with Albert and saw me and a pal standing by the stage hoping to sit in, these young white guys, fans of the music. Little Milton graciously allowed me to sit in and boom, I was in show business! Then I thought to myself, I get to feel like this at my job? Then I’m in! DB