David Sanborn is proud — and rightfully so — of the many hats he has worn in his life behind a horn. Who else in show biz has played at Woodstock (with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band), scooped up a handful of Grammys for his solo work, and hosted a groundbreaking network-television show? And through it all, Sanborn, 46, has managed to keep his musical integrity and sense of heritage intact.
At a time when the pop-jazz saxophone is verging on overkill, it’s inspiring to hear Sanborn’s glistening originality at work. Although he has been lumped into the ranks of jazzers, Sanborn’s style draws more from the traditions of R&B honkers than it does from the sophisticated maneuvers of jazz music. His signature sound can be heard on the new Upfront, his first funk-minded album since Closeup in 1988. In the three years since then, Sanborn broadened his horizons by hosting NBC’s short-lived Night Music show, which brought together such diverse talents as avant-jazzman Sun Ra, soul crooner Al Green, and rock & roller Todd Rundgren. He also released last year’s Another Hand, a more experimental jazz project that clearly showed the influence of his Night Music experience. Now he’s returning to the business of making ”David Sanborn” albums, with Upfront taking him back to the mid-’60s soul music he heard as a precocious teen growing up in St. Louis.
Upfront is, in one sense, true to its title. Shameless fun-making is the order of business: The salsa-ish version of ”Bang Bang” even comes equipped with party-animal chants. There are none of the musicological adventures and tangents we heard on Another Hand. But there’s a fresh, subtle veneer of hipness on the new project as Sanborn and cocreator Marcus Miller traipse through the history of funk and find new juice in old bottles. As producer, principal composer, and bassist, Miller again provides valuable conceptual guidance — as he did on Miles Davis’ later albums.
The end result is a funkified, ear-twisting musical mix in which hip-hop manners meet Booker T. and James Brown. Sanborn admits that the catalyst for this new/old direction was hearing Brown’s Star Time compilation. Sure enough, a few whoops and hollers from the Godfather of Soul wouldn’t be out of place in the slinky grooves of ”Hey.” Flexing his soloing skills, Sanborn slithers / around inventively on ”Snakes,” and shows masterful eloquence with a bluesy ballad on ”Benny.” He locates that happy medium between straight-to-the-heart directness and inventive variations.
The real showpiece of Upfront is ”Ramblin’,” in which Ornette Coleman’s classic tune — first heard on Change of the Century more than three decades ago — is redefined as a fast, rumbling funk vehicle in the vein of Eddie Harris’ ”Freedom Jazz Dance.” Sanborn’s saxophone phrases wriggle and shimmy through a mazelike rhythm section led by Steve Jordan’s fluid drumming.
Purists might balk: Coleman’s free bop done up a la funk? But Sanborn has no time for such categorical fascism. He loves music and wants everyone to get along. In his own deceptively modest way, David Sanborn is doing his part in expanding vocabularies by weaving together the disparate threads of great American night music. A-