“C’mon. Go to church on ‘em, David.”
So said one obviously eager fan last night at the Madison Theater in Covington as David Sanborn prepared to dig into the title tune from his 1982 album As We Speak. Curiously, this was probably the least churchy item on the menu. Instead, the ballad served up enough lyrical might to push Sanborn’s alto sax into that delirious, high emotive plain that makes his playing so distinctive. Then the groove opened up for a rockish spin by guitarist Nicky Muroch that possessed an almost prog-ish, Allen Holdsworth-like quality.
But elsewhere, mixing soul, sax and a little spiritualism was the order of the evening. Sanborn explained early into the 90 minute performance how the classic sax team of Hank Crawford and David Fathead Newman – as well as their knack for blending R&B, jazz, blues and gospel on early Ray Charles records – was largely responsible for him becoming a musician. So, for much of the performance, Sanborn offered his own slant on that hybrid sound with a four member band full of workmanlike drive backing him up.
The most obvious examples of that soul makeup came from Sanborn’s new Here & Gone, an album dedicated to Charles-inspired soul music. Sometimes, the strength of Sanborn’s alto playing was exhibited in works by longtime accomplice Marcus Miller (Brother Ray, to be specific). But in terms of sheer, robust tone, the Here & Gone delicacy What Will I Tell My Heart, a tune cut by Crawford over 45 years ago, was the highlight. Here, Sanborn’s lyricism was impeccable with passages of clipped, precise melodic charm. So many artists, especially current ones, would turn this type of emotive charm piece into cheap sentimentalism. Not Sanborn. The almost effortless exactness of his playing created a high musical sense of honest drama.
A very different nod to vintage R&B came during an encore version of the King Curtis classic Soul Serenade, which was most churchy indeed thanks to a pastoral set-up on B3 organ by Ricky Peterson. The tune’s inherent cool then grew into a tight ensemble groove led by Sanborn that, in its most infectious moments, complimented and propelled another fusion-esque guitar break from Muroch.
There were loads of other delights, too. Another Miller composition, Benny, offered a melodic backdrop of deceiving simplicity that became an exercise in pure physical performance stamina for Sanborn. And for those taken with the saxophonist’s sleeker, ‘80s fare, there was the show-closing The Dream. Stripped of the dated, synthesized gloss that weighed down Sanborn’s 1987 recorded version, last night’s quintet arrangement underscored the tune’s natural anthemic appeal, the band’s energetic but organic performance and that mix of soul, desperation and pure grit that always seems to explode out of Sanborn’s alto.
That took the crowd to church and then some.