David Sanborn dies

    The American alto saxophonist, whose highly charged sound came to define soul-jazz in the 1980s, has died aged 78

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    David Sanborn and Hiram Bullock at Nice jazz festival in 1984. Photo Tim Motion/JJ Archive

    Alto saxophonist David Sanborn, famed for his hyper-expressive development of the soul-jazz style of Hank Crawford and others, died in Tarrytown, New York, 12 May 2024 from prostate cancer, which had been diagnosed in 2018. In the 1980s he brought modern soul saxophone to its peak in a series of innovative, mechanised funk records, outstanding among which is probably the 1988 Close Up. Along with others on the Manhattan and LA scenes of the 1980s and 1990s he was a leading figure in the last days of signal forward motion in jazz before it was overtaken by retrospection and post-modernism. To mark his death we republish a biography and interview from Jazz Journal April 1985.

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    There can be very few altoists who have not heard and noted David Sanborn’s sound, even if they haven’t all liked it. His influence on alto saxophone playing over the last decade has been pervasive and profound and his sphere of influence extends across a diverse range of musical contexts, both in and out of the broad jazz mainstream. Mark Gilbert offers a brief resumé of Sanborn’s career, followed by an interview conducted last year at Nice and in London, which gives some insight into the origins and current direction of that penetrating sound.

    David William Sanborn was born July 30, 1945 in Tampa, Florida, but raised in St Louis. After being afflicted in his early years by polio. he was advised by a doctor to take up a wind instrument as physical therapy. He started playing at age 11, appearing in the usual grade band at high school. His first paid work included appearances with blues artists like Albert King and Little Milton in St Louis.

    Sanborn’s natural affinity for r’n’b was clear from the beginning and he cites Hank Crawford, David Newman and Cannonball Adderley as his early mentors. Later, he took notice of Charlie Parker. These strong bonds with blues and soul music have lasted right through his career and have been vital in shaping his highly emotive sound. His first major gig was not with an orthodox jazz or swing band, but with an r’n’b oriented outfit – The Paul Butterfield Band – which he joined in 1967, after music studies at Northwestern University and University of Iowa. He toured and recorded with Butterfield until 1972.

    After Butterfield, Sanborn had stints with other artists who drew on rock, soul, funk and r’n’b as much as pure jazz sources. These included Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, The Brecker Brothers and Gil Evans, who, like Miles Davis, was shamelessly eclectic in his tastes and progressive in attitude.

    In 1975, Sanborn recorded the first of many albums under his own name, and thus began the mature phase of a career that has seen him much in demand as a solo artist and sideman.

    His latest album, Straight To The Heart, mainly comprises old material: ‘It’s stuff that I’ve been playing for a while and just wanted to put to rest. I wanted to record it one more time and have it there, chronicled. The recording was done live in New York at the Soundstage, which is in a rehearsal studio called Studio Instrument Rentals. We invited people in, it was filmed and we recorded it on mobile trucks. It came across pretty well. That was with Marcus Miller, Don Grolnick, Hiram Bullock and Buddy Williams. It’s more or less the same band as I’ve been touring with this year – only Steve Gadd couldn’t make it.

    ‘These two Wembley dates [in November last] are the second time I’ve been to the UK this year. They came up real suddenly, there’s no tour involved, just these two gigs supporting Al Jarreau and a TV recording for The Tube in Newcastle.’

    Apart from his own recording, Sanborn has other work in New York, his home base, though he has not been so busy recently: ‘I can’t even remember the last time I did. I did do an album with John Scofield (Electric Outlet, on Gramavision GR 8405), though I didn’t know what format that was at the time. He had some stuff written out for me. but there were a lot of overdubs, and my part was mostly improvised. If I sound a little different on there, I think it was just the idiom. I probably just changed my style to suit the situation.

    ‘I’m still playing with Gil Evans occasionally, at Seventh Ave South, whenever it’s open, and whenever Gil can get some work.’

    It was with Gil Evans, of course, that the altoist had his widest exposure to a purer jazz audience, yet he professes to have never played in an unequivocal jazz context for any period. ‘The only jazz gig l’ve ever done is with Gil Evans. That’s pretty much the extent of my jazz playing. I’ll probably do that bebop thing at some point next year. I’ll probably get a group and work some clubs, though I doubt if I’ll record, because I’m not a strong bebop player at all.’

    Another recent recording project found Sanborn branching out after nearly 10 years of working mainly with his own band and as sideman: ‘I did the music for a cable film in the States which features Mary Tyler Moore and Robert Preston. I’m not really familiar with orchestration, but I found I learned a lot – out of necessity. I had to score the whole thing for studio musicians. Some of it is in my style, some of it is different for me. I’m also going to be starting a studio album of my own, sometime in the spring.’

    On the subject of his sound, Sanborn, not surprisingly, found it hard to be objective: ‘Well, it’s more or less the way I hear it. I think people play the way they hear it and that’s the way I hear the saxophone. It’s to do with r’n’b influences. I think playing just evolves: it’s a continuous process of change and growth. I didn’t actually sit down and try to sound the way I do. I don’t really have a practice method either. I use pentatonic scales a lot and maybe try to play tunes, but I pretty much just play my horn.’

    I suggested that the equipment he chose might have a significant effect on his sound: ‘I think it probably has a lot to do with it actually. At the moment I’m using a Selmer Mk 6 alto with a Dukoff metal mouthpiece and sometimes La Voz, sometimes Rico reeds, medium or medium hard. Somebody’s making me another mouthpiece because I’ve been having problems with the Dukoffs. The one I’m using now (November) is not the same one that I used in the summer. The trouble is, they wear out.’

    How did he feel about people trying to copy his style?

    ‘Well, if that’s what people want to do, they’re welcome to it. Maybe they can tell me what it is…’

    This video from Tokyo in 1988, featuring Hiram Bullock and a young Terri Lyne Carrington, epitomises the Sanborn funk style