January 22, 2005
Interview by Mary Bentley
In life there are people who are destined to become one thing or another. When they find what they’re destined to be the results are magical. It’s a perfect cosmic fit. This doesn't happen to everybody, nor does it happen often. When it happens these gifted people transcend boundaries. For example, one doesn't have to be a movie buff to know that Spielberg is supposed to make movies, or a sports fan to know that Jordan is supposed to play basketball. Nor does one have to be a jazz lover to know that Sanborn is supposed to make music. This six-time Grammy award-winning saxophone player has been making music professionally for over 30 years. From his work as a sideman in the early 70’s; to his first solo album, aptly titled Taking Off (1975); to his most current release, Closer (2005); David Sanborn proves once again why he remains one of the best sax players in the business.
SmoothViews (SV): I want to start off with the new CD, Closer. I’ve heard it and I really like it a lot. It’s really a great CD. It’s been getting positive feedback from critics and fans. I’d like to know what made you use the same musicians and the same back-of-the-house people for this one as you did with timeagain.
David Sanborn (DS): Thank you. Well, I really enjoyed the process of making the last album so much that it’s like kind of not wanting the party to end in a way. And I felt like I had such good rapport with all the musicians on the record, and since I was kind of thinking along the same lines in terms of material and approach for this record it seemed natural to call the same people. So, it seemed like kind of a logical thing to do. And, I mean, I did it in terms of the process of making the record. I did it the same way. I did full demos of all the songs at home, and then I took the demos into the studio and played them for everybody, and we then went ahead and did live versions. But since we had the template of the demos there, it made it very easy to show people exactly what I wanted to do, how I wanted the music to sound.
SV: I noticed also, as with timeagain, that you decided to go with the upright bass. Why is that?
DS: Yes. Well, it’s kind of the centerpiece of the sound and the ambiance of the record. When you have an acoustic bass in the ensemble it really changes the dynamic of the record because it kind of forces everybody to play with a greater degree of sensitivity and nuance because it just has a different kind of tone and spectrum than the electric bass.
SV: Even I, who am not a musician, can hear that because the first time I heard you play it [material from timeagain] live was with the acoustic stand-up bass, and the second time was with the electric bass, and it definitely did sound different between the two of them.
DS: Right. Oh yeah! I think with the acoustic bass it allows you to explore the fuller dynamic range.
SV: I’d like to read you something that was written about Closer. This is from our website: "Sanborn is a master at taking previously recorded songs, songs which are generally not well known in the world of smooth jazz, and making them his own. He doesn’t limit his musical selections to only jazz songs, or even popular songs. He expertly pulls material from all musical genres and interprets them with his own style, thus creating something that is musically unique. This works for him because of his incredible talent, and the fact that he trusts it." How do you decide what songs you’re going to cover?
DS: Well... I think as different songs kind of cross your path from one source or another, I approach them with the idea of, can I get inside this song and really kind of inhabit it and bring something of myself into that song? Bring something different? Form some type of emotional bond with the material? I think that’s really paramount.
SV: I remember on timeagain you covered “Tequila.” I don’t even like that song, but I like your version of that song.
DS: Well, I actually kind of backed into that song. I was trying to write an up-tempo Latin tune, and I had some chord changes and a time feel, and [as] I was working on stuff... and then I just kind of absent-mindedly started playing “Tequila” over the top of it, and it just seemed to work. I just worked on it a little further, and it just seemed like a natural thing to do.
SV: Well, it does work. I think it’s one of the crowd favorites too.
DS: Thanks. I quite like it. It’s fun to do.
SV: I’d like to go back a little bit and talk about Double Vision. I think we’re coming up on 20 years since that’s been out.
DS: Oh God! Oh boy! Do I feel old!
SV: That was ’86. There’s been some recent discussion on some of the music boards about that album because it’s basically a classic. You and Bob James together, and you have Al Jarreau on that too. People are wondering if something of that caliber can happen again, if you collaborate with someone again.
DS: Well, you know. I think the thing is... that was a moment in time. The problem often times with trying to recreate some moment is that you kind of try to do part two or a sequel. There has to be some other compelling reason to do it other than the fact that [it] was so good. Let’s do one just like it. Especially, I think that there was a reason to do that record. The time was right and also there was a receptive audience for it. The time may have passed for that kind of record. I'm somebody that pretty much operates by instinct, and I kind of have to follow my instincts. Sometimes, if the circumstances present themselves in [the right] way, I don’t think I would avoid doing something like that. Things kind of rise to the surface, and it’s like, okay, that’s what I need to do now. That’s inspiration, or that’s creativity, or whatever you want to call it, or instincts. And you do that. You do those things because it seems like the right thing to do. And sometimes when you kind of artificially say, "‘Oh that was so great, let’s do it again." That’s not a compelling enough reason to do it. I mean I understand what you're saying. Sometimes it becomes a good idea, but then you get in the studio and okay, it’s like, what are we going to do? Then you find yourself always looking back at the other thing you did, and in a sense you’re trying to recreate that record. Maybe not specifically, but you’re trying to recreate that chemistry, or whatever, and maybe that chemistry just isn't there. Then it becomes like, what’s the point? Then it becomes just not what you intended it to be. The thing is it's lazy thinking. Okay, well, that worked okay, so... I mean, you see it with the record business too. Something’s impossible until it happens. Like, who would have predicted Norah Jones? I mean, [she] came out of nowhere, totally against the grain of every trend that was happening in music. And now it’s, "find me a Norah Jones." Every record company is saying, "Okay, let’s do that," rather then saying, "Let's find somebody else that’s got something interesting to say." They’re trying to get another version of something that already exists.
SV: There’s a line in a Stephen Sondheim song called "Putting It Together" that says, "All they really want is repetition. All they really like is what they know."
DS: That is absolutely what it is! We’re living in an age now where that’s the business model. And it’s kind of hard to operate economically in that kind of climate because it stifles creativity. It certainly makes it a lot harder. You have to really stand up for it, and you have to be willing to take the hits if it doesn’t work.
SV: You’re in a better position to do that than some of the other folks who are coming along.
DS: I don’t know. You know, it’s funny. You would think that, but it’s not really true. I think the business is pretty much across the board whoever you are. It’s, "What have you done for me lately?" kind of. You’re only as good as your last record. I think there are exceptions in certain places, on a certain level. You might have a slight edge in terms of leverage if you’ve had some past success, but I don’t think that really goes very far. It’s like being the son of a famous actor, and you’re an actor too. It'll get your foot in the door, but it isn't going to get you the [job].
SV: What do you think of radio stations changing formats?
DS: Well, I think whatever label they put on, it’s all about the content. If by doing that they’re attempting to expand the content, then that’s a good thing. So, whatever they choose to call it is less important than what they choose to put in it. My whole contention, and my feeling in general about radio is, not just jazz radio, or smooth jazz radio, or whatever-radio in general is, I would like to see a little more variety within each one station. But I don’t know if that’s possible anymore given the nature of where the media is. My recollection of listening to radio was listening to a personality on the radio play music that he was connected with, and having a wide variety of music to play. I’m trying to say this without being negative, because I don’t really feel negative about it. It’s just a matter of there’s a lot of music out there, so let’s play it all.
SV: I remember the show you had, "Nightmusic." That definitely stepped outside of the box. You played a wide variety of music on that show. That was a good show. Even today, I still hear people say how good it was.
DS: For me, that kind of represented my aesthetic in a sense that for me, it’s really about all of these various styles of music, and types of music, and music that’s labeled this or that. Those [different styles of] music have a lot more in common with each other than many people realize. And our purpose in putting together the kind of disparate personalities from different areas of music like Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins, was to show that there was a common bond between these various kinds of music, and that musicians listen to, and are influenced by a wider variety of music than I think most people realize. I think that that’s the way the music grows and changes and becomes new and creative and vital. It’s by synthesizing elements from all around it and not to maintain this kind of rigid myopic kind of tunnel vision, in a sense, trying to maintain a certain kind of purity, or whatever. I think that these hybrids that result… because the Allman Brothers listened to jazz music, and they were influenced by kind of free form jazz players, and that, in turn, influenced other southern rock bands, and those influenced other people. I think when things get kind of stylized and formulized and turn into rigid formula… the problem is that it’s very easy to sell that, but it completely kills creativity. It’s like figuring out what kind of music people want to hear before you decide what it is you’re going to play. So that means it’s not coming from your heart. It’s coming from some sort of market research thought process. And while it may work on some level, it’s devoid of any really deep convictions or feelings. I mean, if those two things happen to coincide, then that’s great, but I think that’s kind of, finding a moment in time. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes people’s moments coincide with what they’re feeling.
I think Norah Jones is a perfect example. Here’s somebody who was playing the music she wanted to play and did it with some conviction, and it happened to be at a moment in time when there was a highly receptive audience for that kind of music. And there were people at her record label that were canny enough to see that this music had an appeal... a lasting appeal... and they were willing to go out there and step up to the plate for this music. And so, that’s great. But okay, that was that. When everyone else jumps on the bandwagon, you’re going to get a certain amount of positive fallout in other places. Certain other people are going to be able to rise to the surface as a result of that, but ultimately, it’s... okay, now what? So, what? Are you going to just keep signing female singers forever until you get sick of that? And then try to find the next? Use your brain a little bit. Know what I mean?
But hey, look, I became a musician because I love music. I do this because I love it, and at the end of the day, the fact that I can make a living at all doing this, I'm grateful for. So all this other stuff is like dinner table talk. Understand in that there’s not really much I can do about it, except say something. Voice my opinion about it. I think the problem is that when you register some kind of opinion about it, sometimes you’re seen as, "Aw, it’s not like it was in the old days," and it’s not that at all. I'm not saying bring back – it wasn't that good back then either. I'm just saying that the basic concept of creative freedom and growth creatively is a continuous process. The music is going to change anyway, whether or not the record companies get behind it or not. The music is there, and it’s happening, and it’s going on out there. Now, not all of it is getting to the public, but that’s not the fault of the musicians. The stuff is going on, and it’s always going to go on, because that impulse has got to find an outlet. And it always will. But it’s always nice when that kind of attitude is fostered to allow people to make a living doing this. It’s great.
SV: I'm going to go back to the collaboration thing a little bit. The stuff that you’ve done over the years with Al Jarreau... you’ve played on his albums, he’s played on your albums. You guys have all been in concert. As a matter of fact, one of the best concerts I’ve seen was Montreux on Tour. That was a great show, with you two, and George Duke…
DS: …Roberta Flack, Joe Sample.
SV: I always equate that to a religious experience. That’s how I felt when I left that concert.
DS: Oh my goodness! Wow! That’s great!
SV: How did you and Al Jarreau hook up musically? How did that come about?
DS: We actually knew each other. I mean, I met him back in the 60’s. We played at the same night club in Cedar Rapids, IA. It’s wild. Then I didn't see him for maybe, let’s see, 15 years. Then it turned out, we ended up having the same manager, and so we kind of got reacquainted. Because we had the same manager, we ended up doing a lot of shows together. I would open for him, and I would sometimes come on and play with him, stuff like that. And it just seemed kind of natural that at some point we would work together. He's a great singer, and a great musician... such a great musician.
SV: I saw him recently. He was on tour with Oleta Adams, promoting Accentuate the Positive. It was really good. One more collaboration question... the stuff you did with Marcus Miller. That’s good stuff. How did that come about?
DS: I knew Marcus. We actually played in the SNL house band together. I think Marcus was just out of college, and we just formed a friendship. He played in my touring band, and he played on the first couple of records. Then he said, "Listen. I write tunes." And he would write these tunes for me. They were great songs. He just gradually became more and more of a presence in my life – first as a song writer, then as a producer.
SV: I don’t know how this is going to strike you, but you’re considered as one of the founders of what’s become known as smooth jazz music.
DS: Oh my God!
SV: You’re very influential to every sax player in the genre today. You wear the crown, but I think you wear it reluctantly. Is this a fair statement?
DS: Well, I guess my unease with that is… I'm always a little uneasy with that phrase – smooth jazz, as opposed to what? So I was never quite sure exactly what that meant. I know what it is kind of. I know what it’s become as a marketing tool. The ironic thing is that, if I'm [the] so-called, the king of that, or one of the founders of that, there are many smooth jazz stations in the country that don’t play my music, which would seem odd. For me, it’s hard for me to think about that.
I basically played the music that I felt all my life, and whatever label people put on it is kind of really none of my business. I think the kind of chronology of the whole thing was that I was making records in the 70's and 80's that used pop production values, but instrumental music; like improvising with R&B kinds of song structures, but with improvisation in them, and pop production values. Because jazz albums had been, more or less, made kind of the old-fashioned way – threw up a couple of mics and go, we took a little care in the production of records, particularly with Marcus and I - Marcus Miller, and also Michael Colina and me. So, I think we were kind of the early pioneers of music with those kinds of production values in instrumental music. But certainly the idea of making records that had a mainstream appeal instrumentally was nothing that we invented. There were instrumental pop records in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, like “Harlem Nocturne,” and “Tequila.” Those were instrumental records, and they were pop records. So we were doing that with maybe a bit more of a jazz sensibility in it.
I think the problem is when a genre or style becomes limiting, when it starts to define what you’re going to do, then it becomes a problem. And I think that’s, in a sense, what happened. Like smooth jazz or straight-ahead jazz. When things become exclusionary, when people can say this isn't that, or that isn't this, then it’s like... who cares? What does that have to do with anything? Because ultimately, it’s really not about that. It’s about the music. Do you believe in the music? Are you doing it with a degree of sincerity? If you are, great! Let people call it whatever they like to call it. But if you're not, then why are you doing it? For me, I make a record, and somebody says, "Oh, that’s smooth jazz." I say, oh really? Okay. Do you like it? "Yeah." Alright, then call it whatever you want to call it. Some people use it as a compliment. Some people use it as an epitaph. So I get it from both sides, but I'm used to it.
SV: When you’re playing, what do you think about?
DS: Well, if I'm really playing, I'm hopefully not thinking. I think you’re trying to get into the moment, so it’s not something that you can really quantify. I mean, you’re thinking about lots of things, and nothing. It's like playing a sport. It's like asking an athlete what they are thinking about when they’re playing. Well, they're thinking about 1000 different things at once. [As a musician, it's] here comes the bridge or here comes the top of the tune. There are too many things going on to hold on to any one thing very long. You try to get into the moment. I think that if you’re going to boil it down to one thing that you think about, if there's a conscious thing... you just try to surrender yourself to the moment. And then it becomes not about thinking, it becomes about being.
SV: Where do you find your muse?
DS: Wherever I can. Sometimes it comes in odd places. You can't really predict it. It's not always in the same place.
SV: After the the concert is over and people are getting up to leave, or when the CD is over, what do you want people to get from your music?
DS: A sense of hope.
Oh! I should mention also, one of the things on the record that I'm really pleased with is the collaboration I did with Lizz Wright. [“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”] I'm a huge fan of hers. I think she's going to be or she should be... she deserves to be a big star... presence.
SV: And she's only in her early 20's?
DS: 22 or 23 – very young, very poised, incredibly talented.
SV: I saw her, as a matter of fact; I saw both of you, out at Capital Jazz last year at Merriweather Post Pavilion in MD. That was my first time seeing her, and yes, I couldn't believe it. This voice was coming out of this little girl!
DS: I know. She's hugely talented.
SV: She's great. You guys should tour together.
DS: Well, I'd love to.
SV: I am going to see you in March up at Berks. I'm looking forward to that. And I guess you’re going to have your usual cast of characters with you?
DS: Well, I guess it depends on the gig, for the most part. I'm working with a bunch of different guys, so depending on the venue.
SV: Well, I’d like to thank you for talking to me this morning.
DS: Well, I'm happy to do it. I'll see you in March.
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