David Sanborn has six Grammy Awards, two dozen albums and a countless number of appearances as a session player, but he talks about his projects with the casualness of talking to his grandmother at a summer picnic.
“I remember Stevie used to come to sound check every day with a new song. He would stay up all night with his instruments and write songs, just write and play all night,” Sanborn, 72, said. “He’d come up with a new tune every day. Some were good and some were not so good, but they came.”
Wonder is just one of the famous musicians with whom Sanborn has worked during his more than 50 years as a performer. The list includes James Taylor, David Bowie, the Eagles, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.
He was inspired not by their status but by their work ethic.
“I was impressed by it,” Sanborn said, “and I felt lucky to be around it.”
If he stopped and thought about it, he said, he probably would have been intimidated to play a solo on some of the most well-loved rock albums in history.
Instead, his curiosity won out.
Take Bowie, for instance.
Sanborn appeared on Bowie’s soulful 1975 “Young Americans” album in addition to several compilation and live albums.
In a recent interview with Downbeat magazine, the saxophonist called working with Bowie some of the most fun he’s ever had because of the singer’s collaborative creative process.
Bowie shaped the music to the people in the studio with him and allowed session musicians to weigh in on creative decisions.
“You felt he was really paying attention to what you played, and how you were and who you were as a player and as a person,” Sanborn said.
Immersed in the jazz and blues worlds starting at age 14, when blues guitarist Little Milton invited the teen to play background bits in his band, Sanborn stuck with the saxophone despite the concerns of family members.
“I was the farthest thing from a prodigy,” Sanborn said. “I didn’t exhibit any of the qualities of someone you think would have any degree of success in music.”
He slugged it out as a sideman — notably with blues singer Paul Butterfield in the late 1960s — before releasing his first solo album in 1975.
His work in the ensuing years has taken him around the world and will bring him to Columbus on Friday to headline the Creekside Blues & Jazz Festival.
Unlike traditional jazz players, who stuck to familiar time schemes and genre elements, Sanborn existed in the corners of the genre, embracing pop, blues and rock.
The musicians who mentored him as a young man didn’t judge one style against another, Sanborn said, and he has maintained that mindset.
“It seems so arbitrary to be exclusionary,” he said. “If it’s good and you enjoy it, if it works and has some kind of integrity and you’re committed to doing it, what difference does it make?”
“It seemed like a series of accidents. … I see a continuity to it now,” he said.
Sanborn’s focus and style haven’t changed much through the years, but he admits making musical choices was simpler when he first started blasting out notes on the saxophone.
At age 20, his lack of knowledge and experience left him with fewer options for structuring his songs. Now, he said, his expanded sonic understanding can be overwhelming.
He said he rarely listens to his earliest albums. When he does, he’s always dissatisfied.
“You go back and you think, ‘Oh man, that was stupid,’” he said.
He quickly corrected his disdainful feelings.