If my conscious awareness of David Sanborn had never gone beyond knowing that he hosted and often played on the extraordinary TV show Night Music (his playing with guests ranging from Miles Davis to Al Green was extraordinary), then I’d still revere him and be saddened to hear of his passing. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He wasn’t entirely comfortable being labeled as a jazz musician, but as a blues/funk saxophonist he was peerless and his many forays into the jazz world were also often quite satisfying.

My favorite Sanborn story (albeit an apocryphal one) is hearing of him going into a recording session in the late ‘70s and turning the page of the chart to see the caption “solo like David Sanborn.” Whether or not that actually happened, it speaks to how ubiquitous his sound became, and it’s no wonder why.

Wishing him safe passage, and here are some of my personal favorites from his discography, presented in chronological order.

1 ) “Last Hope’s Gone” from In My Own Dream by Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1968)

Sanborn’s first national visibility came with this popular Chicago band. Aside from Butterfield’s own blues harp, they’re best known for being an incubator for influential young, White blues guitarists like Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield. As such it’s particularly interesting hearing Sanborn blow a solo on this tune (which he also co-composed).

2 ) “Tuesday Heartbreak” from Talking Book by Stevie Wonder (1972)

This album was one of the formative influences on my own musical consciousness and initially I just had a cassette with no liner notes or personnel or anything. When I learned years later that this was David Sanborn blowing the funky saxophone part on this tune, it was a revelation and yet made perfect sense. It’s also a bit surreal that this predated his own debut as a bandleader by years. I nearly picked one of the tracks from the live David Bowie record from this era (“All the Young Dudes,” most likely) but how can it not be Stevie?   

3 ) “Blues in Orbit” from Svengali by Gil Evans (1973)

I first picked this album up because of the presence of my teacher Ted Dunbar on guitar, but this opening track is just bonkers. It’s an arrangement of an up-tempo George Russell tune and Sanborn’s wild solo fits right in with Billy Harper’s subsequent one.

4 ) “The Legend of Cheops” from Promise Me the Moon (1977)

Modern jazz fans might recognize this gnarly Victor Lewis composition from its subsequent recording by Woody Shaw, but the tune was first recorded (with Victor himself in tow on drums) here, with Sanborn sounding very much at ease on soprano saxophone.

5 ) “The Visitor” from Full Moon by Full Moon (Neil Larsen & Buzz Feiten) (1982)

I will admit here to being a nerd for all the projects featuring keyboardist Neil Larsen (heard here on organ) together with guitarist Howard “Buzz” Feiten (who served alongside Sanborn in the incarnation of the Butterfield band that played Woodstock), from their early 1970s group Full Moon to the Larsen-Feiten Band. This polished yet funky track features a characteristically soulful guest appearance by Sanborn.  

6 ) “Acting This Way” from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark by Robert Cray Band (1988)

This is not really a blues song (though Cray is most often lumped into that category), maybe a soul tune, definitely not a rock song, but it was in heavy rotation on FM rock radio in the late ‘80s and there are few solos in that realm that I studied as closely as Sanborn’s appearance here. I subsequently saw them perform it together on David Letterman, and was struck both that Sanborn was featured again (in spite of Cray himself being an exceptional soloist on guitar) and that he improvised his solo, revealing to me that the utterly perfect solo on the record was also improvised.

7 ) “Come To Me Nina” from Another Hand (1991)

This track is fascinating. Sanborn didn’t need to prove anything to anyone but if item 3 above didn’t get the job done in demonstrating his modern jazz bona fides, this moody, free-time track is another great example. While there is a powerful, full rhythm section, it is ostensibly a duet between Sanborn and another genre-bending musician (albeit a much less heralded one), pianist Terry Adams, who wrote this song and who I knew at the time as a co-leader of the eclectic rock band NRBQ.

8 ) “Snakes” from Upfront by artist (1992)

By contrast, this is the epitome of slick crossover jazz/funk, with Ricky Peterson, Marcus Miller, and Steve Jordan anchoring the groove. I still remember being blown away hearing this in the first time on a car ride in downtown Hartford with friends and, given the era and the absence of portable smart devices, it took years before I heard it again and found out what it was, and yet the memory remained indelible in the meantime.

9 ) “Capetown Fringe” from Closer (2005)

Throughout his career, Sanborn demonstrated curiosity about various “world music” cultures, and this album features multiple examples of that, with Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms represented infectiously. My favorite is this bouncy track, a renamed cover of Abdullah Ibrahim’s iconic “Mannenberg.”

10 ) “Little Flower” from Enjoy the View by Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn, and Joey DeFrancesco (2014)

One last modern jazz track, from probably my favorite album ever to feature Sanborn in that realm, here alongside vibraphone master Hutcherson, virtuoso organist DeFrancesco, and jazz drum royalty Billy Hart. This hip waltz is Sanborn’s lone compositional contribution to the collaborative album, and it’s a memorable one.

One Responses

  • Thomas Zink

    Hi Noah. Thomas Zink here. Thank you for your kind comments about my project with Brian Bromberg. And thank you for taking the time to reach out. It’s always a pleasure to see the ideas and work on other artists like yourself. Your website is awesome, and has inspired me to get a little more personal and offer a little more on mine. I’ve played with Brian for a long time, mostly in his contemporary jazz setting. It was truly an honor to be asked to play on this project, Bill Evans being my hero, and that Music is among my favorite. I’m out of country now at the Java, Jazz Festival, but look forward to checking out your recordings as soon as I’m able.

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