Surrender to the Music

David Sanborn’s brand of contemporary jazz refuses to be categorized

By Stephanie Kinnear

Photo by Henry Leutwyler


sk almost any musician to tell you about the first time they picked up their instrument of choice and they will weave a story wrought with emotional, sometimes bordering on religious, significance. Ask Grammy-award winning alto saxophonist David Sanborn why he picked up a sax for the first time at the age of 11 and he’ll tell you: “Just to help strengthen my lungs.”

Although he doesn’t have much to say about the experience, at three years of age, Sanborn contracted polio. As part of his rehabilitative therapy, he was introduced to the instrument that would shape the rest of his life. Blowing on the sax, doctors assumed, would help strengthen his weakened lungs — little did they know it would also launch the career of one of most influential musicians in contemporary jazz and instrumental pop.

Sanborn, who has collaborated with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and the Rolling Stones, started out playing sax for the Butterfield Blues Band in Hollywood and quickly went on to record his first solo record, Taking Off, in 1975. Twenty-two solo albums and two Grammy Awards later, he is still pushing the boundaries of the sound that is called contemporary jazz. But really, Sanborn considers all the walls that have been constructed between musical genres to be pretty artificial in the first place.

So what can an audience expect from an artist like Sanborn — an artist with his fingers in so many different sounds and styles? According to the man himself: “A mixture of a lot of different kinds of music, because my music crosses a lot of different boundaries.”

You have a pretty unique, lifelong connection to the instrument you play. Why the saxophone?

You know, I think people just have a natural affinity, a natural affection, for a certain instrument because they feel that it somehow provides them with a vehicle for expressing what they want to say artistically. And, you know, it’s like finding your voice. It’s why some people play the trumpet, or some people play the trombone — they’re just trombone kind of people. I think it’s really as straightforward and also as mysterious as that. At the end of it, I think there are a lot of things you can say about it, but it just boils down to that. The saxophone is the instrument I chose because it was the best vehicle I could think of to express what I wanted to express. I also had an emotional attachment to it. I heard a lot of saxophones in the era when I was a kid. And I thought, “Wow, that’s a good job.” You know?

Who were some of those musicians or saxophonists you listened to and looked up to?

The Ray Charles band back in the ’50s was a real inspiration to me. Hank Crawford and David Newman were two guys who were very influential. And there were a lot of blues players, like Lee Allen and Red Prysock. It was kind of that bridge between jazz and rhythm and blues that saxophones sort of filled, because it was sort of the solo instrument of rock ’n’ roll. Certainly in the ’50s and early ’60s it was all over the place in the popular culture.

But today, the sax isn’t nearly as common in rock ’n’ roll …

Well, it was eclipsed. I think probably people OD’d on it a little bit in the ’70s and ’80s and even part of the ’90s … Guitars kind of eclipsed saxophones as the solo instruments of rock ’n’ roll in the ’60s. Ever since then, it’s been a very different proposition.

Still, you’ve played with a lot of rock musicians in the past. Do you still dabble in rock ’n’ roll?

There are people I have enjoyed playing with in that idiom — in the blues and rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll kind of mode. Because I grew up in an era where I could embrace both jazz and rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll, so it didn’t seem to be an odd thing to do. It’s something that I’ve certainly never avoided.

You’ve played with the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. You must have some great stories.

Yeah, I couldn’t relate any of the interesting ones because they’re too libelous [laughs]. The statute of limitations hasn’t run out on a lot of that activity.

A safer question, then: Do you have a favorite collaboration?

I’ve enjoyed playing with everyone that I’ve been involved with. You know, James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt … All these people were and are friends of mine, and great musicians, and people I respect. I’m always happy to join in.

In the late ’80s you co-hosted a TV show — what was that experience like?

Night Music was a show that was about mixing different styles of music on the same show. Having artists play with their own bands and then also collaborating on a few things during the course of the show. We tried to bring in musicians from diverse backgrounds and show that there is a lot more that musicians have in common with each other than not. We were trying to obliterate some of the stylistic boundaries that had been artificially put up between different styles of music — between rhythm and blues and jazz, rock ’n’ roll — and so we’d have interesting collaborations. People like Sonic Youth … I played with Sonic Youth. We’d have the Pixies or NRBQ with Phil Woods. Or Sun Ra with Al Green. Miles Davis with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. It was all about mixing it up, which has always been an interesting thing to me to do. And I thought — certainly a lot of musicians in general listen to a lot of music outside of their own particular idiom, and they’re inspired by music outside their own idiom. I thought it was a valid premise to put on a television show that presented that fact.

It’s really too bad we don’t have a show like that today.

It would be so impossible to do it now. Television is bad enough. And music on television, I mean, when is the last time you saw that outside of American Idol? And certainly when was the last time you saw instrumental music on TV outside of public broadcasting?

You’ve dabbled in so many different types of music, but jazz is really what you’re known for. What is it about jazz that has kept you going through 22 solo albums?

Well, it’s very challenging. It challenges you emotionally and intellectually, and it’s a music that has a rich history. It requires you to surrender yourself to the music and to use your faculties at their highest level.

Speaking of jazz’s rich history, there is a pretty rich history of jazz musicians being influenced by visual artists and vice versa. What inspires you when you’re writing music?

I draw from so many things. By the time it gets down to actually doing, it tends to not be very specific and pretty abstract. I think you draw influences from just living your life. And because visual arts can be so inspiring, that can trigger something on a very basic nonverbal level that will lead you someplace. And because I do instrumental music, I don’t have the burden or advantage of using language, using words. So I have the freedom and I guess the restriction of doing things nonverbally. Certainly, visual arts — dance, theater, painting, sculpture. All of those things are sources of inspiration.


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