Saxophonist David Sanborn is 'Upfront' about his love of jazz, R & B


Call it Zen and the art of hitting the high notes.

That would be an appropriate description of David Sanborn's short over-the-phone explanation of how he soars to tones that border the musical stratosphere.

"You have to figure it out intuitively for yourself," Mr. Sanborn said of extending the saxophone's normal range. "It's like kind of a physical thing based on your own physiology and your relationship with the horn. It's a lot of trial and error and determination. That's what does it -- because the notes are there."

Mr. Sanborn isn't the only saxophonist who can navigate the high altitudes, but he's certainly one of the most visible practitioners of the art.

Since breaking into the business with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the late 1960s, Mr. Sanborn has frequently been called on by rock's elite. His studio credits include performances on albums by Bruce Springsteen ("Born to Run"), David Bowie ("Young Americans") and Stevie Wonder ("Talking Book"). Those sessions led to tours with Mr. Bowie, Mr. Wonder, James Taylor, the Rolling Stones and Linda Ronstadt, among others.

As a solo artist, Mr. Sanborn has remained a consistent force in the jazz world since his "Taking Off" album hit the bins in 1975. Although his groundbreaking "Night Music" TV show (produced by "Saturday Night Live's" Lorne Michaels) fell victim to a late-Sunday-night time slot and disappointing ratings, Mr. Sanborn continues to promote an eclectic range of music through a weekly radio program. He stops short of describing himself as a jazz educator, though.

"I don't look on it as my job, but if I can do that, it's great," Mr. Sanborn said. "I treat the music as a fan, and what we try to do is get jazz and other forms of instrumental music played on radio stations and try to broaden the range of what people hear -- to play Sonny Rollins and Lester Young and Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman and whoever else does not get a lot of play.

"It's not really a mission with me, but I'm glad that I can make some small gesture and give something back to the music that has meant so much to me."

Despite a fondness and affinity for jazz, Mr. Sanborn, 46, would never limit himself to the genre.

In a business preoccupied with labels, Mr. Sanborn has managed to stylishly represent the best elements of pop, jazz and world music.

Fitting into a category doesn't interest him.

"Music is a form of communication," he said, "and if music communicates to you, that's all that's really necessary. I think that jazz is probably a higher form of communication and involves more thought, but I don't necessarily think that makes it better or worse. I think I'm more of an R&B; player instead of a jazz player if you want to get technical about it."

His new "Upfront" album -- which was inspired by Sanborn's affection for James Brown's "Star Time" boxed set -- is steeped with those rhythm-and-blues influences. After indulging his more experimental side in last year's "Another Hand," Mr. Sanborn also was ready for a more back-to-basics recording approach.

"The James Brown set was probably the catalyst," Mr. Sanborn said. "But I wanted to make a record that more accurately kind of reflected what I was doing live. Also I kind of wanted to make the Hammond B-3 kind of the centerpiece of the sound because I've always loved the instrument. So I think that's what kind of led me in this direction, along with loving the sound and feel of those old records."

Joining Mr. Sanborn on the sessions was a band centered around bassist and longtime collaborator Marcus Miller, keyboardists Ricky Peterson and Richard Tee, drummer Steve Jordan and guitarists William "Spaceman" Patterson and Hiram Bullock. After 10 days of rehearsal, the ensemble knocked the songs out in about a week, Mr. Sanborn said.

"The procedure wasn't as radically different as the results might indicate," he said. " 'Another Hand' took maybe a little longer, almost two weeks to do, but this one took about a week. It was all live -- all the solos, all the playing, all the rhythm section was live. The only thing we overdubbed was some horn-section stuff."

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