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David Sanborn: The Curtain Rises on Sanborn Sessions


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The idea is to show people what it's like when musicians are hanging out playing for each other. Behind the scenes, a fly on the wall kind of view.
—David Sanborn
Listed alphabetically, as opposed to first, second, and third place, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, and David Sanborn are as good as it gets when discussing the best and most influential alto saxophone players of all-time. Now before you say what about Phil Woods or Kenny Garrett or any number of others, let me qualify that this is my list, my opinion. Not some carved in stone official list that has been sealed and notarized by some sort of imaginary Grand Poobah governing board. If imitation is the best form of flattery, and if a sound has majorly influenced and impacted generations of jazz musicians and listeners for over half a century, then there is simply no denying Sanborn's stature and impact on jazz history.

One could go on about his list of accomplishments, but I would prefer to get on with, and share with you, a recent open-hearted conversation I had the great pleasure of having with Sanborn. His melodic, conversational, and storytelling style of composing and playing comes to life and resonates even more hearing and feeling the genuineness in his spoken words.

We managed to cover a bit of ground in relationship to his prolific career and challenging personal life. They are far from mutually exclusive. Now seventy-four years old, Sanborn shows no signs of slowing down. That fact is best embodied as he launches a new and exciting program, the Sanborn Sessions, that offers a unique approach and entirely new viewing experience. Let's let him tell you all about it.

All About Jazz: I won't even pretend to try and play it cool, like this is just an ordinary interview, or just another day at the office. Both the jazz fan and jazz journalist inside me are bursting at the seams as we speak. Note the clever album title reference there.

David Sanborn: Yes, very nice. I like it.

AAJ: I would love to talk about that record and maybe a couple of more if time permits, but at the outset, the hot topic at hand is the soon to launch Sanborn Sessions. I'm old enough to remember your classic TV show Night Music. I believe the Sanborn Sessions are, at least in part, a derivative of that groundbreaking show. Perhaps you could start out by talking about that show. It's an iconic part of jazz history and consequently an important history lesson for those too young to remember, and certainly a fun refresher course for those of us that are.

DS: Night Music was an incredibly gratifying show to do. It gave me a chance to enter into my philosophy about music. Musicians across the spectrum of genres have much more in common than many people thought at the time. Musicians, too, need to be reminded that there is this common ground. That rock, rhythm & blues, gospel, jazz, and all these different forms of music basically all came from the same roots or same well spring. That being African American music. Primarily that is the source of the music. In presenting a show like Night Music, we got a chance to have all of that. We would have Sonny Rollins and Leonard Cohen on the same show. They played individually and then together. I think that was the concept of the show. This sort of mixing and matching and coming up with unusual or unlikely pairings. It certainly kept my interest up and spoke to my belief that all this music is equivalent. It's like Duke Ellington said, "There's two kinds of music. There's good music and there's bad music." Regardless of genre I think that holds true. We were a network TV show and had a different platform to work from. We had a lot of resources to draw from. But that concept is what has carried over to the Sanborn Sessions.

AAJ: I was already way into music, but it was a major game-changer. You just didn't see cats like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and Mavis Staples and Curtis Mayfield on television. Your program was an introduction to an entire new world of music. I walked through that door and find myself still wandering about, being inspired by it all.

DS: I think we broke new ground. We had people on television that had not been on before. People that really needed to be exposed. Some great jazz musicians like Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman. They, for example, had been on television with Ray Charles as part of his band. But this was a chance to present them on their own, playing their own music, and highlighting what great musicians they were. Yes, and having Miles on was a great coup for us. To have him and Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie and these kind of great icons of jazz was huge. We had Wayne Shorter and Carlos Santana and so many more. The list goes on.

AAJ: Fast forwarding to today, and the "skinny" everyone is eager to hear about. What can we look forward to on the Sanborn Sessions? What is the premise and concept of the show?

DS: I think the best way to describe it is in how it is similar to Night Music and also how it is dissimilar. The glaringly obvious dissimilarity is that it is a much more intimate setting. We are recording these in my home studio. Also, instead of having four or five artists on the show, we will have two. We did a show with singer Kandace Springs who has a style that is hard to describe. It has jazz, some R & B, a pop element, and beyond. She strikes me as an artist that is kind of in that gray area. That really appeals to me. She clearly has been influenced by a wide variety of people.

AAJ: It's something that can't really be labeled.

DS: Exactly. That's exactly it. I think we are going beyond labels. We did a show with Michael McDonald and a gospel singer named Brian Owens. We all know who Michael McDonald is and what he does. To have him on with this great gospel singer, we showed how gospel and R & B and even jazz can work together. I have always thought that Michael has kind of a jazz sensibility. For example, a song like "Minute by Minute" has a twelve eight jazz overlay feel to it. So, it was fun to exploit that and bring that out. We did another show with Bob James. We did a show with a guy named Terrace Martin, who is a great saxophone and keyboard player.

AAJ: Yes, I am familiar with Martin. I have heard him play a couple of times with Herbie Hancock.

DS: Exactly. He also has produced two of Kendrick Lamar's CD's. He was part of the production on those along with Robert Glasper. We did a show with a great singer songwriter named Jonatha Brooke along with guitarist Charlie Hunter. He is another one of those that has that in between the cracks style of playing. Bottom line is that it is music that I enjoy. Music that I am interested in. People that don't fit into neat categories. I personally think that most musicians think of themselves that way. If you say that you are a jazz musician or a pop musician, then it is immediately exclusionary of other styles of music.

AAJ: It's more likely that someone else assigned them a label. That they didn't put themselves into that box.

DS: Yes. That's exactly right.

AAJ: Totally live and unscripted. That's exciting.

DS: In a lot of cases it will show us working and figuring out the form. As in, okay you come in here, how about if we do this, or you play that sort of thing. The idea is to show people what it's like when musicians are hanging out and playing for each other. Behind the scenes in the sense that it is a fly on the wall kind of view. Like you said, not scripted or premeditated in any way. We might have an idea of what songs we might do, but because of the nature and logistics of it, we don't get together until we are there in the studio and are actually doing it. A lot of times we will work it out within the context of the show. We want it to have an informal edge and vibe to it.

AAJ: You are going to create and capture many moments that otherwise would cease to exist.

DS: Yes, and that's the idea of it. We don't want to have the feel of a formal interview. More like just musicians sitting around a table bullshitting with each other.

AAJ: When does the show debut, and who will be your first guest?

DS: I mentioned the show with Kandace Springs. It launches on December 3rd. We will be launching new episodes approximately every three weeks. In between episodes we will be releasing songs and casual conversation as individual clips so that the audience can get more of the full experience. Episode two will be the one with Michael McDonald and Brian Owens. With the holidays, that will likely run just after the first of the year.

AAJ: What are the viewing options? That is to say, where can folks tune in to watch and listen?

DS:The primary platform for this show is YouTube. That will be the easiest place for everyone to watch it on SanbornSessions.com. You simply just need to subscribe to the Sanborn Sessions. There will be some viewing availability on Facebook and Instagram as well.

AAJ: About how long is each show?

DS: It will vary. Probably in the fifteen to twenty-minute range. We want to keep it concise and hope that people want to see more rather than do too much to start off with.

AAJ: Sometimes better to leave them wanting more than to overdo it.

DS: That's the Alan Green principle. Alan always said to leave them wanting more. They want more, you can always come back and do an encore.

AAJ: Well, too, you could always expand the show later if that seems to make sense.

DS: Oh yeah. That's exactly right.

AAJ: More so than simply the debut, this seems like something to look forward to consistently. I love the fact that because it is creative and improvisational in nature, you won't know what it's going to be until it happens. You and your guest won't even know. In a mostly preprogrammed world, that is exciting and refreshing.

DS: Yeah, we are showing, hopefully not a train wreck, but times where you say oops and well let's try that again. What we are really trying to maintain is the informality of the musicians sitting around playing for each other. Authenticity is an appropriate word to describe the making it real and keeping it real concept. We want the camera guys to be fairly unobtrusive. But at the same time, you'll see them every once-in-a-while moving through the shot. So, we have kind of incorporated that into the whole experience. The musicians get used to them being around and not performing to the camera and just interacting with each other. It's a balance, kind of a dance that you have to do. We aren't stopping and doing another take. We are taking it right through so that it is what it is. At its best, it is somewhere between a rehearsal, guys hanging out together, and a performance. I like that vibe. I like to see how the donuts are made. It boils down to trying to figure out what someone's creative process is. To ask questions that are relevant to something that we just did or something we are going to do. I am really interested in process. I am hoping that my genuine curiosity will appeal to others as well. You will be eavesdropping on musicians having a conversation about some stuff that you might want to know about or might find to be very interesting. Hopefully you get an insight into someone's personality that you didn't know before and that you are not likely to get anywhere else.

AAJ: As always, you have many other projects going on. Including the recent Double Vision Reunion Tour with Bob James and Marcus Miller. That had to be nostalgic and fun for sure playing those classic Grammy-winning tunes again with your long-time collaborators. Double Vision (Warner Brothers, 1986) is a very significant record. What are the elements that make it so?

DS: Well, there was a certain kind of chemistry and elements coming together at that time. It was where Bob was at the time, and it was where I was at the time. We shared a certain sensibility. Marcus was just really establishing himself on the scene. He wrote some great music. Bob and I wrote some stuff. The engineering and sound production I think was an equal player on that record. There was a continuity and a sophistication to the production that matched the nature of the music very well. Then, of course, we had Steve Gadd on drums. Paul Jackson Jr. on guitar. We really listened to each other on that record. You know, sometimes musicians will play their part. but they aren't listening to what everyone else is doing, you know what I mean?

AAJ: Yes. It's supposed to be a conversation of reacting and responding to what is being said.

DS: Right, yes. They aren't listening. They only hear it in the context of what they are doing.

AAJ: My wife and I had the distinct pleasure of sitting in the front row at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix for a performance. That's an intimate and terrific sounding room. The music proved to be timeless. It was invigorating. It heightened the enjoyment level to watch, hear, and feel the camaraderie, sensibilities, and true appreciation and admiration you share. It was moving. Can you put it into words what it feels like to be in that moment and have that chemistry?

DS: I appreciate that very much, Jimmie. The best way I can describe that musically is that it has to be a conversation, not a monologue. It's all of us talking. So, you don't know what that conversation is going to be. You have the framework. You have the structure of the tune. But what goes on inside of that is imminently beautiful. You can change the dynamics, the volume, the tempo, so many things in a thousand different nuanced ways. That way it is new every night. There is nobody playing a solo. We are all interacting. We all share those sensibilities. You have to have a little humility as well, and not be afraid to fall on your ass. Sometimes you do that. But when you start to do that you know that other people up there on the stage have your back.

AAJ: There's a lot of trust there.

DS: There has to be. If you screw up and everybody goes with you, then it's not a screw up anymore. Then it becomes creative. We have so much respect for each other, and are so much on the same page, in regard to playing music, that it was rewarding to continue the conversation within the context of those songs.

AAJ: We (my wife and I) spoke of "The Dream" that night, and how she had chosen it as the song for our first dance at our wedding reception some thirty plus years ago. Within your large volume of work, what song or songs are most often requested or spoken about? I would think "The Dream" would be one of them.

DS: "The Dream" and "Maputo" are the two big ones. "Chicago Song" had a long life. It may not have as much currency as it used to. But certainly, "The Dream" and "Maputo" are the ones.

AAJ: I have seen you perform countless times over the years. Two or three years ago it was very special to attend a Rotary International fundraiser for the End Polio Now campaign. The intent of the event was equaled by the intensity and stellar performance of your sextet at the beautiful Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach. It is way cool that through your music you are able to give back and raise awareness through these benefit shows. I know that this campaign is near and dear to your heart. Could you be so kind as to update us on the current status and progress that has been made in eradicating polio worldwide?

DS: I think that it was almost completely eradicated at one point. Then, unfortunately, it got political in places that are at war. The outbreaks are in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa. There became a mistrust of western doctors that went to these countries to give them the polio vaccine. They were thinking that the doctors were spies. So, they pretty much stopped people from getting inoculated. Before you knew it, there were these huge outbreaks of polio again. The problem is that we are at a planetary level now. It is very hard to isolate these diseases. They travel through the air. This is a devastating disease, but there is an antidote. You can't cure it, but you can prevent it. It's a matter of keeping up the awareness. I think in general people seem to lose their sense of history. I got polio as part of the last major epidemic in 1948. The Salk vaccine didn't come along until the early 1950's. A fact that until this day just blows my mind is that when Dr. Jonas Salk invented the Salk vaccine, he could have patented it and made billions of dollars. But he chose not to do that, and he made it public. That one generous selfless act pretty much ended polio. The power of one person to change the world. He changed the world. That resonates with me on so many levels. As a brilliant researcher and doctor, and a humanitarian, he deserves so much credit for that. I feel obliged to honor that selflessness that he exhibited, and to make people aware that this is not over. We dishonor his memory by not keeping up the fight. Bill and Melinda Gates have done an extraordinary job keeping consciousness raised about this. It's a no-brainer for me to support this. Of course, I have personal experience with it. I know how devastating it can be. How it can change your life. But I also know that a lot of lives were spared because of this man's work, and his selflessness and generosity. This is what connects us all as human beings. This is what is possible. All of us, all over the world, have the ability to change the world with simple selfless acts.

AAJ: That's so well said. Gratifying and moving to hear a man speak with such heart and conviction.

DS: Well, you know people ask me about wishing I hadn't had polio. But in a way I almost say no. In the first place, without it, I would not be a musician.

AAJ: Right, the reason you started playing the saxophone was that the doctors suggested it as a way of building up your lungs, correct?

DS: Yes, that's exactly right. Building up the rest of my body as well. I probably would not have committed my life to playing music had it not been for the polio. It sensitized me to the fact that we all have challenges in our lives.

AAJ: Well, you are an impressively large example of taking lemons and making lemonade.

DS: (lightening the mood) I also take lemons and make tequila sunrises.

AAJ: That's true too. That's an even better idea. Sign me up for that.

DS: I think that without getting to high falutin' about it, music is a way to communicate with people. It's sacred. It allows you tell stories about what it's like to be human. It's a struggle, you are always reaching, it's drama. Music is an endless open sky. You never get to the end of it. And that's a good thing. It's all about process. It's all about doing the work. What better metaphor for life is there than music? (rhetorical) It's a reflection, it's a resonance, it's all of that. We can honor the process with this show, by making it accessible to people. We are telling it in our own way. The closer we get to our truth, hopefully the closer we get to your truth. Early you mentioned that you and your wife chose "The Dream" for your wedding dance. What that means is that something in that song touched you. So that means that I affected your life, in hopefully a positive way. When people tell me that they listened to one of my songs when they were really down and it really helped pull me through, it makes you very respectful of the gift you have been given. To always honor the gift, you were given.

AAJ: To honor the gift you were given. I love that sentiment. Thank you for that. After that performance at the Richard & Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center there was a meet and greet. With a crowded room of people, all of whom wanted to meet you, we had only a moment to speak. I, indeed, did bring up As We Speak (Warner Brothers, 1982), stating that it was my favorite album of yours. You smiled and said that it was your favorite as well. The one question I was able to ask you was about "Rain on Christmas." Your wistful remembrance was that you had written the song "on a rainy Christmas morning looking at the ocean out your front window at your home in Malibu." With the throng of people, it was time to move on. So now, after only a brief interruption, I perhaps can ask what was to be my next question. That simply being, why? What is it about As We Speak that makes it your favorite?

DS: I loved working with Michael Sembello, who actually wrote "The Dream." I was working with Marcus and Omar Hakim. It was very relaxed in nice surroundings. I think we just captured a great moment. That was 1984 or 1985, I don't remember for sure what year it was.

AAJ: I think maybe it was earlier than that.

DS: Really?

AAJ: Yeah, like maybe 1982?

DS: Yeah, you know now that I think about it, you're right. It was 1982. It was an interesting time in my life. I can't really get too into it without going down the rabbit hole. But I just remember it being a very enjoyable time. I didn't live in California. I had just rented a house up there. I had been there about eight months when I wrote "Rain on Christmas." It was Christmas morning. I had the piano looking out at the ocean. I was missing New York. Here it never rains in California, yet it was pouring on Christmas Day.

AAJ: You had rain instead of the white Christmas you were used to.

DS: That's it. That's it exactly, Jimmie. I was wistful about it.

AAJ: Still my favorite album, and "Rain on Christmas" still my favorite song.

DS: Well, thank you for that. You're very kind.

AAJ: Far too many great records to talk about, but if I may indulge you for one more, I would go to a more recent vintage. That being the remarkable album you did with Bobby Hutcherson. Enjoy the View (Blue Note, 2014) is a brilliant piece of work. What was it like working with Hutcherson?

DS: I love that record. There are a lot of reasons why I enjoyed it. Having a chance to work with Joey DeFrancesco again. I had a chance to work with Bobby, who I had never worked with before. I had respected his work since the early sixties. It was fantastic working with him. Such a great musician.

AAJ: Was that Hutcherson's last recording?

DS: I think so, yeah. In fact, yes, I know it was.

AAJ: Well, I just really dig that record. It's a gem. Very special that your legacies are forever adjoined by that record.

DS: Thank you for that. It is very cool, because I really love that one too. Thanks for bringing that one up and appreciating it the way you do.

AAJ: Hutcherson takes me back to the 1950's. Who were the artists, sax players or others, that influenced you the most when listening to music in your childhood back then?

DS: Hank Crawford and Fathead Newman with the Ray Charles band. Gene Ammons. A lot of tenor players. I always wanted to play tenor, but it was too big for me. I was a big fan of the way Ammons phrased with that big fat sound (now vocalizing the "bah boom bah boom" resonance). He swung so hard. Phil Woods. Cannonball Adderley. Jackie McLean. All those guys really inspired me. I had a certain sound in my head that was sort of an amalgam of all those players and more. You just start going after the sound that is in your head.

AAJ: Professionally, I believe your first big opportunity was playing with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. You were very young at the time. How did that break come along?

DS: I used to hang out in St. Louis with a drummer named Phillip Wilson, (a founding member of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago) and we worked with some people that later became associated with the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, and Roscoe Mitchell. I grew up with Phillip, and he took me around to different places. We were pretty ecumenical about the kind of music that we wanted to play. Later, in 1967, I was in San Francisco, and just by chance, I ran into Philip walking up the street. He had just joined the Butterfield band. They were playing at the Fillmore. He suggested that I come on over and hang out with them. So, I did, and then I followed them on down to L.A. when they were making a record. I sat in on the record and the next thing I knew I was in the band.

AAJ: Right place at the right time with the right chops.

DS: Yeah, I got lucky on that one.

AAJ: Later, you had an incredible touring band with Marcus, Omar Hakim, and Hiram Bullock. I'm happy to say that I saw that kick-ass quartet several times. I know you don't want to step on anyone else's toes, and I respect that, but that ensemble had to be about as good as it gets.

DS: It was pretty good, yeah. It was pretty great, really. That was also the rhythm section for Night Music.

AAJ: Oh yeah, that's right.

DS: Yeah, with Philippe Saisse on keyboards and Don Alias on percussion.

AAJ: So cool to think back on that. Circling back, the Sanborn Sessions is now the next chapter of your extraordinary life. Is the first season already in the can, or are you still in the process of recording them?

DS: Yes, we have eight or nine shows that we will be presenting. We are still going back and forth and working on putting them together a bit and how to best release them.

AAJ: Well, then hopefully there will be eight or nine more and the eight or nine more after that.

DS: Well, let's hope so. That's the objective.

AAJ: May I be so bold as to throw out one name as a possibility that I think would make for a great show?

DS: Sure. Absolutely.

AAJ: That would be Leni Stern. Mike (her husband Mike Stern) too, for that matter, but I did say one, so I'll stick with Leni.

DS: Ah, very good. Sure. My wife and Leni are very good friends. As am I, with both Mike and Leni. I think that would be very much in the realm of possibility. We have played a lot together over the years.

AAJ: Indeed. I believe I have heard it all. Way back on the Night Music show, you introduced us to not only many musicians but also different genres of music. Will there be that kind of ever-changing dynamic going on with the Sanborn Sessions?

DS: The variety of musical experiences, yes. So, it's not just exclusively jazz or exclusively R & B, or exclusively gospel, or exclusively whatever. It's these blends of music that are hard to identify, but hard to ignore.

AAJ: I love the fly on the wall concept. I'm excited about it. Looking forward to that first episode, December 3rd on YouTube. We wish you much success and a whole lot of fun with the show. It's been a true honor and a privilege to have such an enjoyable and informative conversation. I'm talking with a true jazz legend here, and trust me, that fact is not lost on me. A most sincere thank you, David.

DS: Well that's very nice of you to say that. Thanks so much. I appreciate it. Hopefully we will see each other soon, Jimmie.

Photo credit. C. Andrew Hovan

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