It will forever be David Sanborn’s burden to be considered part of the modern day elevator music format known as “smooth jazz.” Think of smooth jazz saxophonists and you have to consider names like the dreaded Kenny G. Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat. Sanborn is light years beyond that.
Sure, some of his mid ‘80s albums made a serious bid to mirror the kind of crossover popularity enjoyed by smooth jazz artists. But even on recordings that blanketed his playing with synthesizers and bland vocal arrangements, Sanborn’s alto saxophone tone remained instantly recognizable. A high, conversational squeal of a sound, it owed equally to the ‘50s and ‘60s R&B traditions of such masterful soul sax men as Hank Crawford and to a fruitful ‘70s scene of session players that included the late tenor sax giant Michael Brecker.
But Sanborn also developed his music, in part, as a means of personal necessity. Having suffered from polio in his youth, he was encouraged to play saxophone to build chest muscles and strengthen his breathing.
Bred by the likes of the Butterfield Blues Band in the ‘60s, Sanborn became the sax man of choice by all kinds of major pop names from the ‘70s onward. His breakthrough came in 1975 with a prominent role on David Bowie’s hit Philly soul album Young Americans. Listen to the album’s standout funk track, Fascination, for a defining blast of Sanborn’s early work.
That fall came Sanborn’s debut solo album, Taking Off, a tight, organic groove driven session that still sounds great today. During a recent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, Sanborn jammed with Paul Shaffer’s band – as he did throughout the ‘80s – on Taking Off‘s lead tune, Butterfat.
Sanborn makes a rare regional concert appearance on Saturday in Covington as part of a tour to support Here & Gone, an album that leans greatly to the meaty, handmade soul Crawford helped pioneer during the golden age of R&B. Guests like Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks and Josh Stone pepper the album. But it’s soul giant Sam Moore’s vocal sass on I’ve Got News for You that really gets Sanborn’s groove going.
Smooth jazz? No way, baby. This is the sound of a major league pop contributor back out on his own playing the sort of learned soul stuff that has been a lifelong passion. This is serious organic music that bridges the worlds of soul and jazz in a way that honors tradition while remaining true to a resilient sax sound that fervently remains Sanborn’s own.
David Sanborn performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Madison Theater, 730 Madison Ave. in Covington. Tickets are $35 advance, $38 day of show. Call (859) 281-6644 or (859) 491-2444.