David Sanborn: Sound and Silence

Jason Crane By

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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.

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