Veteran alto-sax master DAVID SANBORN has played a crucial role in establishing the sound of contemporary jazz and instrumental pop. In his remarkable three-and-a-half-decade recording and performing career, he’s consistently embodied the dual ideals of virtuosity and versatility, revealing a one-of-a-kind talent on his own much-loved releases while building a singularly impressive resume that includes work with everyone from Gil Evans to Bruce Springsteen.
The sense of open-minded adventurousness that’s helped to make David Sanborn a musical icon is prominent on Closer (2005), which followed his acclaimed 2003 Verve debut Timeagain. The album once again teams Sanborn with Timeagain’s producer, Stewart Levine, along with an all-star assortment of musicians including Larry Goldings (electric piano, organ), Gil Goldstein (electric piano, accordion), Mike Mainieri (vibraphone), Russell Malone (guitar), Christian McBride (bass), Steve Gadd (drums), Luis Quintero (percussion), and Bob Sheppard (saxophones), as well as Sanborn’s Verve labelmate Lizz Wright, who contributes a compelling guest vocal on a memorable reading of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.”
Closer’s ten instrumental tracks cover a typically eclectic range of musical and emotional modes, from the buoyant tropical vibe of “Tin Tin Deo” to the fluid lushness of “Poinciana” to the late-night introspection of “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” to the arresting intimacy of the Sanborn originals “Sofia” and “Another Time, Another Place.” Elsewhere on the 11-track collection, the artist offers distinctive interpretations of Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand’s “Capetown Fringe” and the Horace Silver classics “Señor Blues” and “Enchantment,” and a poignant reading of the classic Charlie Chaplin standard “Smile.”
Closer’s artfully eclectic approach is consistent with Sanborn’s longstanding ability to maintain his identity as a jazz trendsetter while remaining active in the worlds of jazz, rock and R&B. “I’m a big fan of structure and brevity, and I think that’s something I learned from blues and R&B,” Sanborn states. “The longest piece on this album is about six minutes. As times goes on, I get more and more interested in the idea of saying more with less, and in saying what you have to say and then getting out.
“Making Closer, I was very clear about my picture of what I wanted the record to be,” the artist explains. “Gil Goldstein and myself pretty much arranged everything, and I recorded very detailed demos, playing all the instruments myself, to give the musicians an idea of the tempos and chords and some of the voicings. But within that structure, a lot was left open to interpretation.”
Even in the context of Sanborn’s imposing body of work, Closer stands out, thanks to his consistently inventive, expressive playing and the sympathetic support of the album’s sterling supporting cast. “Casting,” Sanborn says, “is 90 percent of the job. I’ve never been particularly comfortable giving people direction. I would rather just find the right people, explain what I want and then leave them to their own devices, because an important part of the process is getting people to invest something of themselves in the situation. And if you get the right people, people that you have a rapport with, it’s always something more than you expect.”
Born in Tampa, Florida on July 30, 1945 but raised in St. Louis, David Sanborn was exposed to a wide variety of music in his youth. Early on, he was attracted to the work of soul-jazz saxophonists like Gene Ammons, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Jimmy Forrest, King Curtis and Willis “Gator” Jackson, improvisers who balanced their hard-swinging chops with warmth and expressiveness. Adopting the alto saxophone as his main instrument, Sanborn immersed himself in jazz while retaining a parallel affinity for popular culture. His talent and adaptability resulted in early gigs backing artists as soul deity James Brown and blues great Albert King.
In the 1970s, Sanborn earned widespread renown as both an improvising jazz instrumentalist and a busy R&B/pop/rock session player. He was featured on albums by such jazz heavyweights as Gil Evans, Jaco Pastorius, the Brecker Brothers, Joe Beck, and Mark Murphy, as well as projects by David Bowie, the Eagles, Carly Simon, Donny Hathaway, and Bruce Springsteen.
Sanborn began recording as a leader in 1975, when he released his debut album, Taking Off, on Warner Bros. He went on to record a dozen albums for Warner, including such well-received efforts as Heart to Heart, Hideaway, Voyeur, and Straight to the Heart, before singing with Elektra in 1990. At Elektra, Sanborn recorded such critically admired CDs as 1991’s Another Hand, 1992’s Upfront, 1993’s Hearsay, 1995’s Pearls (a collaboration with arranger Johnny Mandel), 1996’s Songs from the Night Before, and 1999’s Inside.
“Ultimately, it’s not an intellectual exercise,” Sanborn says, describing his musical philosophy. “It’s kind of like arranging the furniture in a room; you try to set things up so that there’s a certain ambience. You paint the walls a certain color and you choose a certain kind of rug, with the intention of creating this little world that you want to be in, and hopefully other people will want to inhabit that world as well. And if you do it right, you forget about the components and the process, and it becomes about the experience.”
“Maybe that sounds like an obvious thing, but you need the right people to make that happen. The great thing about guys Steve Gadd or Christian McBride is that you don’t always hear how great they are, but if you talk to any musician who’s played with them, it’s obvious. They’re about moving everything forward and making the music happen. They’re selfless, and that’s what music’s supposed to be about.
“There’s an old expression,” Sanborn points out, “called ‘Getting a little house,’ which refers to using a flashy trick to get the crowd to go nuts, like jumping up on the bar or playing a really fast lick or holding a note for a really long time. That’s an easy trap to fall into, going for the quick fix, and we’re all guilty of it. But as time goes on, I’m less and less interested in that kind of thing and more concerned with just making the kind of music that feels the most real to me. To me, that’s what Closer is about.”