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David Sanborn: Sound and Silence


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What I learned from [Hank Crawford] early on, although I didn't understand it in those terms, was that the sound and the silence are of equal value.
Saxophonist David Sanborn is one of the most recognizable instrumentalists in modern music. From his many television appearances—on his own show, Night Music, and with David Letterman's band—to his popular records and tours, Sanborn is among the few names in jazz that non-jazzheads can recognize.

In 2008, Sanborn released Here & Gone (Decca, 2008), an album that pays tribute to saxophonist Hank Crawford, who was a key part of the Ray Charles band through many of its greatest years. Crawford inspired Sanborn to play the saxophone, and it's fitting that Sanborn is now using his notoriety to shed a little light on an under-appreciated jazz master.

All About Jazz spoke recently with the renowned alto player.

All About Jazz: You have reached a point in your career where if you never played another note, you'd still be one of the few saxophonists that most people can actually name. But instead of slowing down, you're speeding up. What is it that drives you?

David Sanborn: The act of making music is just continually new and fresh and exciting to me. The fact that I have an opportunity to go out and play music with other people, and make a living doing that, is remarkable to me. It's a great gift to be in the position I'm in. To be able to play music that I've gathered or written and to be able to examine it. To get down and try to inhabit the songs in different ways. You never get to the end of music. You never get it figured out. The more you play, you more you hear, and the more you hear, the more you want to play.

AAJ: Are you still surprised on the bandstand?

DS: Oh yeah. All of a sudden seeing how something fits together. Sometimes it's a little on the technical side—it's hard to explain. It's like, "Oh, that sounds good with that. I see how that relationship works." Or something I've tried before didn't work and suddenly it works. It's like the other night. I'd heard this thing that Joe Henderson played with Larry Young, an organ player. It was just kind of a pattern that he played. And I thought, "That's so cool." And I logged it in the back of mind. Then the other night we were playing this tune, and just by total happenstance I played this phrase that I'd never played before. I'd forgotten it was there. Then I thought back and realized it was that Joe Henderson thing. It just kind of clicked for me—something that I'd heard 25 years ago. When that happens, it's like discovery.

AAJ: You must still like to push yourself and challenge yourself.

DS: I think that goes without saying, but why not do that? It's more surprising to me that people don't do it than that people do it. You've got to be willing to put stuff on the line. Otherwise it doesn't have much meaning. It's not about "do it again like you did last summer." It's got to be about some kind of discovery and some kind of adventure. You need to feel that at any point, the shit could just fall apart. It could just crash and burn. That's part of the adventure of it.

AAJ: Can you tell folks what they need to know about saxophonist Hank Crawford?

DS: Hank was a saxophonist and the principal arranger of the Ray Charles band in the late 50s and early 60s. He helped shape the sound of that band. They called it a "small big band." It was five horns that sounded like a much bigger band, and that was really Hank's talent that put that over. In addition to being a great arranger, he was an extraordinary saxophonist. He had the gift of economy in his playing that, to me, all great musicians have. People like Miles Davis. To me, Miles was the master of getting to the point and having every note mean a lot.

One of the things that Hank could do better than almost anybody was play at incredibly slow tempos and leave a lot of space and not have that space just die. He understood that the space that you leave is as important as the sound that you make. What I learned from him early on, although I didn't understand it in those terms, was that the sound and the silence are of equal value. And then when I heard Miles Davis, I gravitated to that. More in the abstract with Miles. It was his simplicity and his use of space. He could manipulate space so effectively, and maintain the thread of the melody and of the improvisation over a period of time and not have to fill all those spaces.

AAJ: Is it more difficult to connect with an audience at that level of economy and simplicity than it is with a bombastic solo?

DS: It's a lot more showy to play a lot of notes. They call that "getting some house." That's the phrase they use when guys go up there and stand on the bar and roll on their back and play one note really high and hold it for a long time. That's always going to get people on some level because it's exciting, and there's a place for that.

But it's a lot harder to draw people in. Why was Miles Davis so famous to so many people? Why was he, after Louis Armstrong, the most imitated trumpet player ever? It wasn't because he was bombastic and played a lot of notes and played a lot of high notes. What was it about him? It was his sound, the way he could play one note and you knew it was him. The way he could play in a simple way—simple, but try doing it. He was like Picasso. He just knew how to manipulate space. And that's art.

That's what Hank had. That's what attracted me early on. That concept of "take your time." It's a hard thing to do. You get up there in front of an audience and you leave that space and you get nervous. You've got to have confidence and conviction to do that. It's a lesson I'm constantly learning. I've certainly not in any way mastered that. I think Hank had that intrinsically in his playing.

AAJ: There are quite a number of guest names on this record, but the core band is amazing in its own right.

DS: The bassist is Christian McBride and the drummer is Steve Gadd. Those guys, along with [guitarist] Russell Malone and [keyboardist] Gil Goldstein, have played with me on my last three records. The reason I chose these people in general is because they're willing to check their egos at the door and play in service of the music. You won't find a better drummer than Steve Gadd. He can do anything that any other drummer can do, and do it 10 times as good. But it's never about the flash with him. The same with Christian McBride. It's not about showing off.

These guys are so good that they play in service of the music because they know that's what's important. When you get guys at that level who can turn on a dime and play anything—it's not like "hey, get a load of me"—that's the mark of a real musician to me. When it's time to shine, they shine, and when it's time to make the whole thing move along, nobody grooves harder than these guys, whatever the idiom. Whether it's straight-ahead or funk or R&B or a ballad, they do it better than anybody.

AAJ: Who did the arrangement for "Basin Street Blues" on this record?

DS: Gil Goldstein. Gil did all the arrangements, but that's probably his most original arrangement.

AAJ: I love the fact that he used a Richard Tee-style Fender Rhodes electric piano all throughout the arrangement, which I wouldn't have thought of, but it's absolutely perfect. He sounds like a guy with an amazing ear for what fits, even if it's not what you might expect.

DS: It was a conscious choice on our part to use the Rhodes, because it was a way to blend the texture in with the rest of the horns, aside from me just totally loving the sound of the Fender Rhodes. It's kind of a brother sound to the Hammond B-3 [organ], which is my favorite keyboard sound ever. The B-3 and the Rhodes—there's a kind of softness but percussiveness to the sound. And the blend is so effective.

AAJ: When you were first discussing the concept of this record with Gil Goldstein, were you talking about the "little big band" idea?

DS: Absolutely. That's where it started with us. I said, "This is the kind of sound that I want for this record." For me, the ambiance of this record is a good place to start. How the whole thing came about was that I had been re-listening to a lot of early Hank Crawford from the 50s and 60s, and I was just struck by how much I love that music and how much it affected who I was then and who I am now as a player. I wanted to do this now. I wanted to pay tribute to Hank and connect to the essence of that music that inspired me to want to play in the first place. And I wanted to acknowledge Hank while he was still around.

AAJ: One of the great things about a decision like that is that everybody has heard of Ray Charles, but far fewer people have heard of Hank Crawford. That's not because fewer people should have heard of him, but because that's how it is when you're the saxophonist.

DS: That's how it goes. He and David "Fathead" Newman—who was probably a little more ubiquitous in terms of solos with Ray—those were the two guys. It was Ray singing and then a sax solo, and that was always Fathead. You know, Ray played the alto. I talked to Ray about Hank and Fathead, and he said, "Yeah man, Hank made me stop playing the alto. Because I would get up there and when I heard Hank play, I decided 'I've got to stop playing.'" And Ray was a good alto player. He was an effective alto player. But he recognized the genius of both of these guys. He was way into them and he was way into being a jazz player.

AAJ: I would urge people to seek out this record and to seek out Hank Crawford, too.

DS: Absolutely. That's one of the things I hope to accomplish with this record is to have people be aware of who Hank was and who he is. He's an extraordinary musician and he's done some amazing things. He made a series of records with an organ player named Jimmy McGriff that are definitive soul organ records. Amazing records.

Selected Discography

David Sanborn, Here & Gone (Decca, 2008)

David Sanborn, Closer (Verve, 2005)

David Sanborn, Time Again (Verve, 2003)

David Sanborn, Inside (Elektra, 1999)

David Sanborn, Songs From The Night Before (Elektra, 1996)
David Sanborn, A Change of Heart, (Warner Bros, 1990)
Bob James, David Sanborn, Double Vision, (Warner Bros, 1986)
David Sanborn, Close-Up, (Reprise, 1988)
David Sanborn, Backstreet, (Warner Bros, 1982)
David Sanborn, Voyeur, (Warner Bros, 1980)
David Sanborn, Promise Me the Moon, (Wounded Bird Records, 1977)
David Sanborn, Hideaway, (Warner Bros, 1976)
David Sanborn, Taking Off, (Warner Bros, 1975)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Decca Records

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