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Q&A with David Sanborn: Still Savoring the Scene

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Wednesday October 04, 2017

From DownBeat

Q&A with David Sanborn: Still Savoring the Scene
By: Michael Jackson

David Sanborn was the most salient alto saxophonist of the ’70s and ’80s, a musician who parlayed his visceral, immediately recognizable sound into a successful solo career that netted half a dozen Grammy Awards and spawned, somewhat to his chagrin, the genre now known as smooth jazz.

But Sanborn’s roots are laid deep in the blues—he played with Albert King when he was 14—and he also came up around avant-gardists in St Louis. DownBeat caught a set by Sanborn in the spring at Chicago’s Promontory in Hyde Park and spoke on the phone with him this fall before a six-night run at Manhattan’s Blue Note Club. Despite his considerable fame and influence, Sanborn remains disarmingly self-effacing and enthusiastic about his fellow saxophonists and the scene at large.

You reminisced with the audience at the Promontory about your days in Chicago in the early ’60s, when you were studying music at Northwestern. You recalled jamming at fabled club McKees on the South Side with Sonny Stitt and that he “cleaned your clock.” What did you mean by that?

“Cleaned my clock” meant “told me what time it was, took me to school!” It was an instructive moment, everything I thought I was was eliminated in about 30 seconds or less. [My saxophone teacher] Joe Daley took me down there, as he knew Sonny; it might have been Maurice White, later of Earth Wind and Fire fame, on drums.

I was thrilled and terrified. Joe said “Go up there!” and probably suspected what was going to happen. I knew Cherokee in B-flat but wasn’t expecting the move up to B and so on. It taught me the lesson about being fluent in all keys. That kind of competition on the bandstand was a hallmark of the jazz scene in Chicago. Who could really navigate the changes? Now rap guys have taken over that kind of cutting. I never really subscribed to that aspect of music because there are many ways of playing. I don’t consider it a competition. You either like the way someone plays or that story or you don’t. Maybe that person is just having a good night.

You had a lot of early experience playing alongside singers, notably in the company of Michael and Randy Brecker, whom you frequently recorded with as a section. What do you think you and Brecker taught each other?..

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