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David Sanborn

Nothing says "adult contemporary" or "smooth jazz" quite like the presence of a tantric sex advocate, and the vocal appearance by Sting on alto saxophonist David Sanborn's most recent release, 1999's Inside, squarely places the album on the Najee-Celine Dion axis. A quick peek at the disc's other guest spots doesn't dispel the notion, ripe with such commercial casuals as Cassandra Wilson and Lalah Hathaway. All this from a sax man who's never really faced the Muzak: Roll over Michael Bolton, and tell Kenny G the news.

But once you see what Gordon Sumner's up to with Sanborn--Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"--and hear the R&B romp that they turn it into, you start to see the problems of lumping Sanborn into the same heap of cheap that includes John Tesh and Michael Hedges. The man simply can't win for losing. Not quite jazz, not quite rock, not quite pop, not quite soul, Sanborn's solo output is a litany of near misses. You wonder how Sanborn gets work at all.

Funny thing is, he's always said he was the oddball out, aware that his talents didn't lie in any traditional setting. Sanborn took up the sax as a child when battling polio, merely distraction and recreation, and it eventually became his calling card. He started playing with blues honcho Paul Butterfield in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s, Sanborn was one of the most omnipresent session musicians in contemporary pop. He shook it next to Maceo Parker on James Brown's Hell and Reality. He goes the distance with the Eagles on The Long Run and takes it to the limit on One of These Nights. He got to see James Taylor's smiling face while recording JT. He went down Thunder Road with Bruce Springsteen on Born to Run. And he performed similar duties on albums by Carly Simon, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, and Garland Jeffreys.

His fondness for the instrument's upper register became his calling card--only avant alto head John Zorn has more fondness for squeals, duck calls, and crying peals--and some of Sanborn's best solos come as guest spots on others' albums. Thanks to the jazz-rock experiments that Miles Davis launched with Bitches Brew, Sanborn's session work dovetailed nicely with what Gil Evans was up to on Svengali and Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix, the large ensembles of Bob Moses' Visit With the Great Spirit, and John McLaughlin's The Promise.

This background in a little bit of everything made him the perfect host for Night Music With David Sanborn, NBC's short-lived (1989-1990), late-Sunday-night music series. A confluence of rock, jazz, pop, and soul, the program featured live studio performances from some of music's hippest outsiders and always ended in a show-closing jam with all the guests. Guided by Sanborn and musical directors/bandmates Hiram Bullock and Marcus Miller, Night Music made its auspicious debut with Marianne Faithfull, Zorn, Aaron Neville, and NRBQ. Over the course of its two seasons, the show never diverted from that diversity and featured some of the best live music performances of TV's history--where else would you see Sun Ra or Christian Marclay? The Residents stopped by on their 1990 "Cube E" tour. Sonic Youth led the entire cast through a spazztastic "I Wanna Be Your Dog" with backup vocals from the Indigo Girls (?!?) as Don Fleming ran around the set with garden shears. Nick Cave and Mick Harvey performed a heart-stopping, down-tempo version of "Hey Joe" accompanied by Toots Thielman and Charlie Haden. And one surreal evening, Leonard Cohen joined Sonny Rollins to close the show.

Unfortunately, this eclectic approach to music was the last hurrah of 1980s musical diversity. Sanborn and other jazz-rock-schooled session men had already been pretty much skirted to the fringes of jazz proper by the genre's new traditionalism heralded by the rise of Wynton Marsalis, a musician whose career is founded on the luck of a right place/right time birth. Pop/rock was about to be splintered into the bijillion little subgenres of the 1990s as radio, record companies, and MTV tightened their stranglehold on mainstream music. Commercially, fusion was dead before it even started, though nobody told Herbie Hancock for the better part of a decade. Yet Sanborn pressed on, doing his thing.

Though his solo output leans toward the pop-crossover side of jazz, he's still got a few surprises up his horn. The best one yet has been his sopranino playing on Tim Berne's tribute to Julius Hemphill, 1992's Diminutive Mysteries. It's one of Sanborn's most fiery performances ever recorded. He not only keeps pace with Berne--as unpredictable an alto player around these days--but gives the album the confidence of hard-earned craftsmanship that pushes the rest of the performers as well.

Which has always been his curse. Sanborn's never sounded very comfortable on his albums--all the pop-jazz polish never fails to smooth the edge out of his playing--yet he enlivens others' works almost effortlessly. Musically, he takes chances that Kenny G or Tesh would never even think about, let alone try. In a nutshell, the man can play. Problem is, you can never guess when he's going to decide to show it off.

 
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