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David Sanborn: The Curtain Rises on Sanborn Sessions

Jim Worsley By

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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.
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