“I’m Always Learning”: A Conversation with David Sanborn
It’s become something of a pejorative term, but smooth jazz was huge in the ’80s. Sax player David Sanborn and keyboardist Bob James were two of the genre’s biggest names — so when they teamed up as a duo for 1986’s Double Vision, the result was naturally a platinum-selling, Grammy-winning hit. But it was more than a commercial success; as other albums from the era have faded into a stale-smelling haze of velour, ferns, and white wine spritzers, Double Vision remains eminently listenable, with songs and performances that continue to breathe in spite of their era-appropriate production.
Now, nearly 30 years after their last outing, James and Sanborn have reunited for another album, Quartette Humaine (out May 21). Far from a Double Vision sequel, it recaptures their chemistry while recasting it in a very different light. As Sanborn explained during a recent interview with Popdose, that decision — like everything else about Quartette Humaine — was only natural.
In the EPK for the record, you and Bob talk about how you wanted to make this a “New York record,” which I love, because as much as you still tend to be identified with the smooth, slickly produced sound that overwhelmed the ’80s, you were instrumental in helping shape the East Coast session scene of the ’70s.
Well, I think Bob and I both felt that we got somehow identified with a certain area of instrumental music, or jazz, if you will, that’s one small part of what we do. I think if there was any frustration over the years, it was just the fact that it became our identity, for better or for worse — people either loved it or they hated it, and they said, “That’s who those guys are.” It’s not about necessarily trying to please other people, but at a certain point, it got to be a little irritating. We thought we were pigeonholed in that area, so we got on with our lives and we did what we did.
Both Bob and I wanted to make a record that reflected another side of who we are and where we came from; one that paid tribute to some of the influences we’ve had over the years. I think it ended up being a much more accurate reflection of where we are right now. Both of us are interested in playing music that’s exciting to us and telling the truth about where we are at this point in our lives, and once you get a couple of tunes down that reflect the general tone of where you’re trying to go, that kind of ends up defining where the rest of the record goes.
There were one or two songs when we started out that helped us focus in on the nature of what the album was going to be — that gave us a point of view. You follow it from there. More than anything else, it felt like this is just who we are right now. Double Vision was who we were then, but life goes on; things change, things move. Albums are just frozen moments in time — they never tell the whole story. It’s just a snapshot of one moment, and that’s what this is.
They’re snapshots, but their permanence can sometimes be a double-edged sword. And as much as that period in jazz is maligned, Double Vision is one of the records that shows how that sound can really work — it’s like the acme of the smooth jazz genre in a way. Everything fits.
I think if you’re going to survive as a musician, you have to develop a thick skin and realize that what someone else says is their own business. You don’t have any control over it. You just go on about your business, and every once in awhile you check in and say, “Oh, really? That’s interesting.” I guess what I really want to say is that this record wasn’t made in reaction to anything — it’s really not that pointed or deliberate. It’s just that this is who we are, and if people want to interpret it as something else, there’s nothing either of us can do about it.
You make the music that feels right to you at the time, and that’s what this does. I also believe that albums need to have a point of view, and as this one unfolded, it became clear that the acoustic quartet setting was going to sort of define its character.
It’s interesting to hear you say all this, because it would certainly be easy to interpret it as a reaction — much the same way someone could have heard your early ’90s solo records Another Hand and Upfront as a refutation of the slick ’80s albums that preceded them. It felt like a deliberate look at who you really were, coming on the heels of a period when it seemed like you got locked into doing essentially one thing.
For better or for worse, I’ve always been a little bit restless that way. There’s a lot of music that really excites me, and in an effort to kind of get to it all, I’ll make these records that certainly on the face of it seem to be very different, but in reality, they’re just reflections of who I am. All my influences, and my musical character.
The last couple of records I’ve made have been tributes to a period that was very fundamental to me in terms of inspiration — the Ray Charles band of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman. People like that. That’s always been there, right from the beginning. So you could look at an album like Taking Off and then compare it to Another Hand and say “These are two different people,” when in fact, they’re not. I’m the same guy — I’m playing the same way. You have to be contextual and play music that’s appropriate to where you are, but I’m not a different player; I’m not assuming a different personality. When I do those things, they’re all part of who I am. And that’s true not just of me, but of a lot of different players.
The trappings change, but you don’t.
You’re talking about influences, so it seems like now would be a good time to address Quartette Humaine‘s inspiration as a sort of tribute to the music of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. You and Bob both obviously work with a broad palette, so what was it that called to you about those particular sides at this point in time?
I always loved that group. I was, and am, a huge Paul Desmond fan — he was just so lyrical. He always reminded me of Lester Young with the way he played — that light, airy sound. The way he and Dave interacted was also fundamental to me during my early playing experience, and I think it was the spirit of those guys, and that music, that really kind of inspired the genesis of this record, because Bob felt the same way. The interplay between them, the way they reacted to each other, informed us making this record.
Bob, in a more overt way, wrote a couple of songs that were tributes to that quartet: “Follow Me” and “You Better Not Go to College” are very Brubeck-like. But overall, we just tried to stay true to the spirit of those records, which rested on the communication and the interplay between Dave and Paul. And for that matter, any working quartet.
You develop a language and a chemistry that’s either compelling to you as a player and an audience, or it isn’t. I’ve always admired the way Bob’s played in that way — he’s a great accompanist, as well as a great solo player and arranger. For years, he worked as Sarah Vaughn’s accompanist; he knows that role and how to do that, and he’s also very comfortable there. All these aspects help to shape what this record is.
You mention the art of playing in a quartet, and clearly there were two other guys — Steve Gadd and James Genus — who influenced the sound of this record. How did this particular group come together?
Both Bob and I have been fans of Steve and James, and we’ve both played with them in different iterations over the years, so it was pretty much a no-brainer for us to call those guys. Not only had we had a lot of experience playing with them and we knew we spoke a common language, but they were just simply the best guys for the job. We just kind of went from there.
The music business has been in a state of extreme flux for the last decade or so, and digital distribution has evolved to the point where anytime artists of your stature release an album through a major label, it’s kind of comforting — “Ah, at least those guys are still in the system.” Plenty of artists are questioning the need to release albums at all anymore.
Just in very crass terms, records become calling cards, and advertisements for live gigs; what they do is kind of announce music and format — the sound of what you want to go out and play live. And also just to have it as a kind of permanent record, if you will, of a kind of music you wanted to make. I’m still of the opinion that records have a certain personality and a certain point of view, and they’re moments in time; you try to make them as well-crafted and representative as you can. Things that will stand the test of time. Ultimately I just want to be as honest as I possibly can.
And now once you take that snapshot, the question is whether you release it yourself or sign a contract with a label — and the answer isn’t as clear as it used to be.
Well, that’s always a good question. I mean, Sony has been very accommodating for us, and I think the advantage you gain by doing something with a larger label is their distribution and promotion muscle; everything’s kind of consolidated in one place. Certainly, it’s always been the way I’ve operated, so it’s familiar, and I’ve been very lucky over the years to have good partners at the company — people who leave you alone and let you make the music that feels good to you, then go out and sell the result. If you’re dealing with people who have that attitude, you’re in pretty good shape. I’ve known people who’ve had to deal with a lot of label interference, but that’s mostly on the pop side, anyway.
You and Bob weren’t able to tour behind Double Vision, and your plans to play out in support of Quartette Humaine are one of the big draws for this reunion. Given that you’re playing in such a different context this time around, are you finding that it’s necessary to heavily rearrange those older songs?
It’ll be interesting to do those songs in an acoustic context — it’ll be a different kind of challenge. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.
To what extent are the songs from that album still a part of your vocabulary?
Well, I always play “Maputo.” That’s become kind of a calling card from that CD. In that sense, that music is always kind of with me. There’s a lot of great music on that album, and we’re starting to get into that area where we’re figuring out what we want to do from that album, so we’ll have to see what ends up in the set.
You’ve covered a lot of territory. Do you ever feel like you’re getting close to mastering your craft?
I never feel that way. I always feel like I’m a student; I’m always learning. I’m always hearing something that’s interesting and new — something I want to learn how to try and do. I never feel like I’ve mastered anything, you know? I’m just trying to catch up.
I used to practice every day, but over the last year or so, I find myself doing that less. I got so obsessive about it for awhile that I started to feel like being away from my instrument for awhile occasionally would be a positive thing — that it would free me of physical patterns, patterns of thought, that I was caught in before. Especially when I’m on the road, I don’t practice much. Not as much as I used to.