Despite Illustrious Past, Saxophonist David Sanborn Keeps Looking Forward

In 1975, David Sanborn may have been the busiest musician on earth.

From The Calgary Herald
by Eric Volmers

The veteran saxophone player was like a session-musician version of Woody Allen’s Zelig that year, popping up on some of the era’s most historic recordings. That’s him on Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. He played on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. Linda Ronstadt enlisted him for Prisoner in Disguise. The Eagles had him play on One of These Nights. Cat Stevens hired him for Numbers and James Taylor brought him into the studio for Gorilla. Perhaps most famously, he contributed to David Bowie’s classic album Young Americans, including that iconic sax solo on the title track. All of those albums were released in 1975. By that point, Sanborn had already toured with Stevie Wonder and played on his classic 1972 comeback album Talking Book. He had played with the Rolling Stones. He had been a part of Bowie’s sprawling band on the Diamond Dogs tour. He even played Woodstock as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Surely, throughout it all, the musician must have had at least some inkling that he was contributing to music history.

“I certainly was enjoying myself,” says Sanborn, in an interview from his home in New York City. “But I don’t think you ever have any idea of what is going to be iconic or historic in any way. To me, it was just: ‘OK, this is reality. This is just what’s going on right now.’ ”

The thing is, Sanborn’s status as one of the most in-demand session players was only one side of his story in 1975. He also made his debut that year as a solo artist when he recorded the appropriately titled Taking Off, which propelled him to even higher heights as one of the era’s most influential sax players.

He has since recorded 24 more albums, won six Grammys and welcomed artists such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk as host of the late-night series Night Music. He has also toured non-stop for more than half-a-century. But he’s still a bit stumped when asked what audiences can expect from his Oct. 18 show at The Jack Singer Concert Hall, which will be the only Canadian stop on his current tour.

“This is more of an acoustic group,” says Sanborn, who will be playing with trombonist Michael Dease, drummer Jeff (Tain) Watts, pianist Geoffrey Keezer and bassist James Genus in Calgary. “I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t generally like terms like fusion or funk or straight-ahead. But it’s acoustic music. We’re going to be doing a couple of tunes by Michael Brecker, we are going to rework one of my older tunes. It’s more what people would consider to be straight-ahead jazz but it’s not like doing standards. This is where it’s always difficult to describe music in words. The tendency is to always describe it in terms of categories and I think that’s really the antithesis of whatever it is that I’ve tried to do over my career. I just never accepted those boundaries. I just did what I did and let other people decide what to call it. It’s not very interesting me to try to explain it.”

Over the years, Sanborn became known for his savvy blending of genres. So, despite his dislike of categories, he has found himself lumped into all sorts of them throughout his career; from instrumental pop, to R & B, to funk, fusion and jazz. But the one label that seems to have stuck is “crossover artist.” It’s a term that has become so synonymous with Sanborn that it was even mentioned in the press release for his 25th album, 2015’s Time and the River. But, true to form, Sanborn seems just as suspicious of this label as any other.

“I don’t understand (it),” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a pejorative or a compliment. To me, the mark of a good artist is when you describe them in terms of who they are: Well, that’s a Paul Simon tune or that’s a James Taylor tune. Is it country-rock? Is it rock? It’s when the identity of the music is the name of the artist rather than somebody who is in that category. To me, that’s the essence of what good music is. Look, we’re all storytellers whether the music has words or whether it’s instrumental. We’re all telling a story up there. If you tell an interesting story, people want to listen. Everybody has got a different story so the object to me is to not to do anything but be true to who I am as possible. Tell your story. If you’re a tenor player, you can sound exactly like John Coltrane. Well, it’s impressive but John Coltrane has already told his story.”

Sanborn’s story as one of modern music’s most renowned sax players actually begins rather modestly. As a child in St. Louis, he contracted polio at the age of three. Playing sax was simply a way for him to strengthen his chest muscles. But he gradually fell in love with the instrument. By the time he was 15, he was sitting in with blues legends such as Little Milton and Albert King when they played St. Louis.

He eventually headed to California, where he joined the Butterfield Blues Band. He played Woodstock in ’69 and, before long, became a musician’s musician, in high demand for sessions and tours. While he has no problem talking about his illustrious past, he clearly doesn’t want to be stuck there.

Which may be one of the reasons why Sanborn rarely plays on other people’s records anymore.

“I have a studio in my house and every once in a while if there is something that is really extraordinarily interesting I’ll do it here at home,” he says. “But I really don’t do it anymore. Maybe I’ll do something for a friend or something. I’m more interested in doing whatever it is that I’m doing. I don’t have to do it anymore and I haven’t had to do it for a while. The only motivation would be if it’s something really interesting to do. On the rare occasion someone asks me to do something, it’s really not that interesting musically. Or someone will have an idea and say ‘Oh, I loved you on this record that you made 40 years ago.”

“Well, that’s great,” he adds with a laugh. “Call that guy.”

On Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

Sanborn played baritone saxophone on Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 classic as part of the album’s impressive horn section and contributed to the song, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, among others.

“I always found him to be a really great guy,” Sanborn says. “I remember the pressure he was under making that record. You could feel the tension and pressure he was under. I’m not sure what all the sources of that pressure were, but it was very clear the moment you walked into the door. People had their jaws clenched. They were serious. There was a lot riding on it. They invested a lot of money or it was a real critical moment in his recording career, I don’t know really know what the source was. It seemed there was a lot riding on that record. Fortunately, it turned out to be monumental. It’s a great record. The energy and the passion of that record is astounding. He really delivered the goods.”

On David Bowie’s Young Americans

The most famous pop-rock sax solo of the 1970s? Certainly, Sanborn’s iconic work on the title track of David Bowie’s 1975 classic is up there with the best of the era.  

“Bowie had not really toured American prior to this tour he did called the Diamond Dogs tour, which he did right after he made that album. That was my first experience with him. During the course of that tour, he started writing the music for the Young Americans and I think he was obviously inspired by Philadelphia soul music and decided to actually got to Philadelphia and record in the same studio that a lot of those Philly soul records were recorded in.”

On playing with Stevie Wonder during his tour opening for the Rolling Stones and subsequent work on Wonder’s 1972 classic, Talking Book.

 Sanborn was a guest on Talking Book alongside artists such as Ray Parker Jr. and Jeff Beck.

“It was obviously a big deal, because the Stones had been going for almost 10 years at that point. They were obviously an established band. We were playing these big venues, Madison Square Garden and places like that. But Stevie Wonder, at that point, was not a big deal. He was just coming off of being Little Stevie Wonder. When he made Talking Book, which was the album that really exploded for him, he was doing that while we were on the road with the Rolling Stones. I played on one song on that record.”

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