David Sanborn: Light on the Outskirts of Town
David Sanborn’s 40-year career brings him full circle with the August release of Here & Gone. The nine-song album, produced by the legendary Phil Ramone, is a tribute to the music that initially inspired him as a fan of music, but it’s done with a twist that is uniquely attuned to the Sanborn sensibility. The saxophonist who has played with a legion of hit makers and incredibly diverse musicians over the years including Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Paul Butterfield, and Ween chose to craft a work that takes its inspiration from cats who helped shape the 1950s and 60s rhythm and blues sound.
Specifically, Sanborn colored his vision by going right back to his roots with a nod to alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, Ray Charles’s arranger and band mate. Crawford was also the hook that got Sanborn to play the instrument after seeing him play as a young child growing up in St. Louis. Sanborn went on to his own great heights in his career, amassing a legion of credits, and reaching mythical proportionsEric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and Miles Davis, to name just a trio of trendsetters with whom Sanborn has played.
Sanborn has also assembled a rather stellar cast of musicians on his latest release, as well. Clapton lends vocals and guitar to “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” Derek Trucks supplies slide to the Marcus Miller tune, “Brother Ray,” “I Believe to My Soul,” a Ray Charles track, features Joss Stone on vocals, and the great Sam Moore delivers a knockout blow on an album closing clincher, “I’ve Got News for You.” Jambands.com catches up with Sanborn in between tour dates as the ever-youthful saxophonist and band leader talks about his impressive career, the music along the Mississippi, chasing phantoms, how Ween is funny like Bob Dylan is funny, Saturday Night Live, and the perceptive wisdom that audio technology should always be “in service to the music.”
PART I The Roots
Handle objects with consideration and they will show you all their little tricks. – “The Discipline of DE,” Word Virus, William S. Burroughs
RR: Here & Gone takes your career back full circle with its nod to some of your main influences. There is the Ray Charles tribute aspect, but also, specifically, its central focus on Hank Crawford, Charles’s sax player.
DS: Absolutely. That’s kind of where it started for me. The genesis of this whole project was that I was downloading some CDs onto my iPod, and I ran across some Hank Crawford CDs that I’ve had for years. I stopped there for a minute; I hadn’t heard them for a while; it struck me how much that music was a part of the foundation of my playing. I was reminded how important Hank was in my musical development. He was the first guy that gave me the inspiration to want to play the instrument. He was my guiding light early onhis sense of economy, elegance, and soulfulness. He could say a lot with a little. He really impressed upon me the importance of having every note mean something.
Those records that I got early on were the foundation of who I became as a player. People like him and David “Fathead” Newmanthose were the principal players in Ray’s band. Actually, Hank was the arranger for Ray’s band in the late 50s and early 60s so he created a context for Ray and for that music. He helped Ray fully realize what that music really became. That’s music is such a great mix of jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues. It wasn’t any one of those things. It was all of those things. It just grew out of the experience of those guys and where they came from. They were products of their environment. Hank was from Memphis, and his father was a preacher. “Fathead” was from Fort Worth, Texas, and Ray was from Florida, and Georgia, so that part of the country was really where the music took root. Growing up in St. Louis, I felt very close to thatgeographically where the essence of that music was. That music all came out of the church, the early rock n’ roll tent shows, and the more earthy forms of jazz, and formed the basis of what rock n’ roll became. People like Fats Domino and Little Richard all came out of the church or New Orleans and it was all that same mix of music.
RR: Over the years, you’ve had opportunities to play with many musicians in multiple genres with various styles and backgrounds. How did St. Louis help you develop your musical skills and tastesoutside of the fact that you were listening to a lot of different music?
DS: St. Louis, as you know, is a river town on the Mississippi River. The route that this music tookNew Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louiswere the principal places that the riverboats that traveled up and down the Mississippi would stop. The musicians that played on those boats in the early days of jazz spread the music. St. Louis is at the top end of the Ozarks and it is more of the South than it is of the Midwest. There were a lot of blues musicians that came up through Memphis and St. Louis on their way to Chicago, so it was a melting pot of all of these forms of music. The church was very strong in that part of the country because it was the rural South.
There was the good and bad with that, also. When I grew up, St. Louis was pretty much a segregated town. All of the movie theatres were segregated. My high school had only been integrated for a year before I got there. It wasit was the South, but the African-American culture was a rich culture in the city. I was very fortunate in being allowed to take part in and experience the musical side of that culture growing up. My experience coming up was really shaped by the tone of the music that was happening in St. Louisthat particular mix, the earthy rural side of jazz. The people that I gravitated to were Hank Crawford, “Fathead” Newman, and tenor players like Gene Ammons, Jimmy Forestthe guy who wrote “Night Train”and Arnett Cobb, who was also from Texas. All of these players were blues-based players. These were guys that moved and inspired me, so that was really the primary fundamental factor in who I became as a musician.
The blues were very much part of the foundation of who I was, and I think it has always stayed with me through the years. Whatever situation I’ve been in, whether it’s the more popish side of the spectrum, I’ve pretty much played the same way. I’ve changed according to the context, tried to be appropriate towards the situation, but [the blues] has always been a strong element in my playing. It’s really where I came from. I don’t think I’ve ever really lost that.
PART II The Ties That Bind
I am the man within this movie hall where samurai are slashing with their swords – “Rare Angels,” 3 Poems Michael McClure
RR: I’d like to talk about some of your musical collaborations. Let’s start right at the top with your association with producer Phil Ramone, which continues with his production on Here & Gone.
DS: Phil is someone I’ve known since the mid-70s.
RR: Was he working with Billy Joel at that point?
DS: I think he was just starting to produce Billy Joel after producing Paul Simon. Phil is one of those guys who was around and part of the early days of multi-track recording along with Tom Dowd. [Author’s Note: Dowd is perhaps most famous for producing Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, the Derek & the Dominoes album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, and the early Allman Brothers Band recordings, including the legendary At the Fillmore East album.] He had a pretty close working relationship with Tom Dowd. Between them, these guys were brilliant engineers as well as being great musicians.
Phil was a child prodigy violinist. They were both tremendously accomplished musicians, in addition to being an innovator in the studio, as far as the technical side. He had both sides covered. Because he came up in the days of live recording, he knewand this sounds like an obvious thingbut he knew where to put the mike in the room. That’s a real _art_an understanding of how to record an instrument on four tracks, or how to record a big band. He had an understanding of the process of recording from that point up through all of the technical innovations over the years, and keeping pace while never forgetting the central fact that all the technology has to be in service of the music.
What Phil is really able to do and what he’s great at, along with knowing the music and being proficient on the technical side, is that he knows how to create an atmosphere in the studio that’s conducive to playing. You don’t really feel like you’re working. He creates an atmosphere where you can relax, try things, be yourself, and push your limits. It’s not so clinical as it sometimes can be in the studio.
RR: The ambient atmosphere is captured well on Here & Gone. In particular, I was struck by the track that features Eric Clapton on vocals and guitar, “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town.” You almost feel like you’re in the room with him. It is a very intimate moment with a strong vocal performance, and I also enjoyed the tasteful, restrained way that your sax weaves and connects with Clapton.
DS: He is so amazingwhat he brings to the situation. As you know, he’s a student and someone who understands the music. He knows the history of the music. He’s been inside it. He knows how to inhabit these songs because he has an incredible insight into the whole history of the music from Robert Johnson up through all of the people who are contemporary now, people like Derek Trucks and Robert Cray. He has also listened to Buddy Guy and Freddie King. He’s listened and absorbed all those people, and internalized all that music, so he’s found his own voice in all of that. He brings all of that history and tradition to what he does.
What really strikes me about what he did on that tune, “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” is not only what he sang, but what he played. If you noticed, he’s just in the middle, in the lower register on the whole tune. It’s so, so perfect. He never goes up above the middle range of the instrument. What that does is that it leaves that frequency for me, so it becomes very conversational. It’s not like we’re competing at the same frequency. That’s something you can’t teach somebody. And he did that because he knew that was the right thing to do. That’s the stuff that you value in musiciansthe ability to know that that’s the right thing to do.
RR: I like that the album was sequenced with Derek Trucks playing a beautiful slide guitar on “Brother Ray” followed by Clapton’s track. You had a bridge between two eras, but at the same time, they were coming from the same family.
DS: Exactly. Derek is such an extraordinary player. He is so focused. You’ve seen him play, right?
RR: Oh, yeah.
DS: You see how intense he is? There’s no distractions, no histrionics; it’s really something. I sat in with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theatre last year. [Author’s Note: Sanborn played on “Soulshine” in Set I, and “Desdemona” in Set II on April 8, 2007 in New York City.] It was so great. I love those guys. It’s fun, and it’s serious, and it’s great music. It’s everything you want a band to be. The fact that they’ve been going along as long as they have, and maintained a level of excellence over the years is a real testament to the dedication to their music. And their fans, toopeople who just really love them and are devoted to them. I’m a huge fan of theirs, all of them. Gregg [Allman], Warren Haynes, Butch [Trucks], and Johnnie [Jaimoe]everybody in that band is so fucking great. Derek is part of that legacy as well as being his own man. To me, he’s one of the most extraordinary talents that I’ve heard in my life. He’s got this wide range of interests. He’s very knowledgeable about jazz, and areas that I was quite surprised that he was aware ofpeople like Sun Ra, and a lot of the electric Miles [Davis] stuff like Live Evil, and all of those albums. He knows this music.
RR: Yeah, I love his take on Curtis Mayfield, too.
DS: Curtis Mayfieldthe whole gamut. He’s in the process of internalizing that music. Every time I hear him play, he’s grown by leaps and bounds. He’s a real special person.
PART III The Bridge of Sighs
Because if the Masters of the World exist, they can only be underground: this is a truth that all sense but few dare utter. – Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
RR: Joss Stone appears later on Here & Gone, on the track “I Believe to My Soul,” and she is also very young while carrying this long history of music with her, as well.
DS: When I first heard her sing, I said, “She sounds like a cross between Bonnie Bramlett and Mavis Staples.” The first time I heard her, I think she was 17. I thought, “What the hell is going on here?” You could make a case for being touched by some kind of divine spirit because how could this young girl from Devon, England have this extraordinary insight into the music, and really inhabit these songs the way she’s able to. She took a song that was not only written and performed by Ray Charles, and identified closely with Ray, but it was a song written from a man’s point of view. She totally turned it around, and really owned it. I felt good about myself for asking her to do it. (laughter) It made me feel good about me. I had a strong feeling that she could really bring it off, and she fucking nailed it.
RR: And she reminds me of Derek Trucks in the same ways you described.
DS: It’s no bullshit, no histrionicsshe wasn’t showing off. She was doing the job, delivering the song, and what more can you ask of someone?
RR: Sam Moore delivers vocals on the final track, “I’ve Got News for You,” and he has not lost a step in over 40 years. Amazing.
DS: Unbelievable. The Pavarotti of Soul. He’s part of the fabric of all of our lives. He’s the soundtrack. He shaped the direction of where music went. Those records that they did in Memphis“Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’”I mean, shit, man, it just doesn’t get any better than that. This voice is just like a nuclear fucking reactor. He still has that power to deliver this song that is a combination of blues andit’s funny, too.
You said before we met that your life was awful tame,
but I took you to a nightclub, and the whole band knew your name.
(laughter) It’s like, “Oh, baby!”
You wore a diamond watch, claimed it was from Uncle Joe
But I looked at the inscription and it said, “Love, from Daddy-o.”
(laughter) That’s someshitwe’ve all been there. I wanted to leave the record with that. That’s a really important spot for me on the recordthe last tune. It’s never a throwaway what you leave people with. Man, you’ve got to have a strong finish. To me,
that was it. “We’re done. We do that, and we’re done.”
RR: I’m old school, and I still listen to albums in a linear fashion, so I don’t cherry pick songs. However, I had to restrain myself, and not jump to Sam Moore’s track.
DS: Yeah, I know. Me too, man. Me too. I had so much fun doing that tune.
RR: I would like to talk about some of the other musicians, too.
DS: Yes, I do want to mention a couple of other people on the recordWallace Roney who played a great trumpet solo at the end of “St. Louis Blues;” also, Anthony Wilson who played a guitar solo on “Stoney Lonesome.” He is the bandleader Gerald Wilson’s son, and he’s an extraordinary player. Three of my favorite guitar players are on this record. Four, if you count Russell Malone. Russell Malone, Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks, and Anthony Wilsonthese are my guys. I’m a fan of these guys.
RR: Let’s also put a spotlight on the Hammond B-3 organ, and Ricky Peterson.
DS: Ricky Peterson. Yes, sir. He’s such a great player. He’s been in my band for 15-20 years. It’s amazing. I also have to mention Steve Gadd (drums), and Christian McBride (bass). This is the third record that we’ve done together. It’s like the house rhythm section. These guyswhatever music you have, they find a way to serve the music, but also inject their personalities in there, as well. It’s always in service of the music.
PART IV A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Now, patience; and remember patience is the great thing, and above all things else we must avoid anything like being or becoming out of patience. – Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
RR: Let’s go back to Sam Moore’s era in the 1960s, and talk about your time in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
DS: Oh, man, that’s where I started. I joined the Butterfield Band in ’67. I was on the street on Haight/Ashbury (not living on the street, but not far from it), and I ran into a friend of mine from St. Louis, a guy named Philip Wilson, a drummer, who I grew up with, and he had just joined the Butterfield Band. He said, “Why don’t you come down to the Fillmore and hear us play?” This was in 1967. I went down to hear them play, went down to L.A. when they were making a record, and insinuated my way into the record date, and kind of conned my way into the band. I was with the Butterfield Band for about five years. Yeah, almost five years. That was a great experience because there were musicians from the jazz world in that band, and, obviously, Butterfield was the ultimate Chicago blues harp player after James Cotton and Little Walter. Butterfield had such a unique sound. He was so powerful. It was really a signature sound. I never heard anybody
else who played with that kind of power and tone. I segued from that to Stevie Wonder, so there were two of the great harmonica players. I also played with Toots Stillman, so harmonica (laughs) has been a big part of my musical history.
In 1967, when I was playing with Butterfield, we played the Fillmore [West] ballroom, sometime in August [8/22-8/27/67], and Cream was the opening act for us. That’s actually where Eric and I met. It was like “Oh, hello. How are you?” kind of thing. We didn’t see each other for years and years after that until the early 80s.
RR: You later appeared on Stevie Wonder’s album, Talking Book, in the early 70s.
DS: We were on the road opening for the Rolling Stones in 1972, and we were in L.A., and all of us had been at a party at one of the houses that one of the Stones was renting. I think it was the house that Mick Jagger was renting. We partied until the early hours of the morning, and I think I got back to my hotel around 7 or 8. At around 10 o’ clock, I got a call from Bob Margouleff, Stevie’s producer at the time. He said, “Stevie wants you over at the studio, now.” I thought, “What?!” I was in a fucking dead sleep, so I get dressed, get in a cab, and go over to the studio. He said, “Stevie wants you to play on this tune [“Tuesday Heartbreak”].” I go out into the studiothey’ve got a level on meand they say, “We’re going to run the tune for you.” They ran the tune, and I played on it, and they said, “That’s great!” I said, “O.K. Now let’s do it.” They said, “No, we’ve got it.” I said, “You’re fucking kidding me.” I didn’t know. I didn’t have any music in front of me. I was learning the song. I said, “Man, you’ve got to let me do it again.” They said, “No, we don’t have time. It’s fine. It’s good.” So I packed up my shit, went back to the hotel, and went to sleep. The whole thing took about an hour and a half. Every time I hear it, I cringe. If I’d only known that’s where the tune was going. I can hear myself feeling my way through, not knowing when it was going to end, or when it was going to change.
RR: Here’s the other end of the spectrum. My understanding is that when a session musician worked with Steely Dan in the 1970s, it took quite a while to get the sound that Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and producer Gary Katz were aiming towards. I suppose it’s an understatement to call them “perfectionists.” They were the Stanley Kubricks of the recording studio, right?
DS: (laughs) Yeah. Yeah. I think so. Pretty much. Terrence Malick, who directed Days of Heaven, was like that, too. I was only in the studio with [Steely Dan] once. It was only an affectation really. I played on Gaucho [the final 1980 album before the duo took a long hiatus that finally ended with their 1993 reunion tour, and subsequent new studio work]. I can’t say I spent much time with them. Actually, we were only in there for a few hours, so I probably got away much easier than a lot of other people. (laughter) They notoriously spent years making records, and, you know, everybody has their process. They make great records and they’re classic. It would drive me crazy, though. I can kind of go that way, but after a while, I can’t hear it anymore. I just can’t listen to it anymore. I don’t know what their process isdid they step away from it a while, and then come back to it, or what? I know it certainly requires much more patience than I have.
PART V The Rapid Flow of Kaleidoscopic Moments
Sanborn cut loose with a fine King Curtis-styled sax solo, and the singer/dancers, now mutated into gospel choir, began booming something: star machine is coming down – Sanborn with Bowie’s band, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Lester Bangs
RR: Is Phil Ramone adept at getting the feel in the takes early on in the process?
DS: Yeah, I think he understands that it’s about capturing that moment when everything comes together. I think what’s critical to that is having an appreciation for the fact that it ain’t about perfection. It’s about a vibe. There can be notes where you can say, “Technically, that’s wrong,” or maybe somebody backed off the mike, and some of it was a little ducked, but if the magic is there, it’s there. You don’t ignore that. It’s about the performance. It ain’t about “the drums were a little hot in that section.” So what? Deal with it. It’s about capturing that moment. It’s hard enough being in that studio without imposing that level of looking at it under the microscope because then you lose the flow, the continuity of what it’s supposed to be. Then, it’s like typing.
RR: What was it like to record on Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album?
DS: It was also just in a section [on the track “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” alongside the Brecker Brothers, also playing horns]. It was the one and only time, I think, that I played baritone in a horn section. I met Bruce when I was playing with David Bowie. We played the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and Bruce had hitchhiked from Asbury Park [New Jersey] to where we were at the Spectrum because, at that point, Bowie was doing one of his songs in the show. I just remember him being this really mild-mannered, self-effacing guy, and he’s kind of still that same guy. We’ve run into each other from time to time and he’s really a down-to-earth guy, as far as I can tell. I’ve always had that kind of relationship with him, and I believe that everybody else does, too. That’s just who he is.
RR: Another relationship that you’ve had also comes to mind. A live DVD recording, Quincy Jones: 50 Years of Music – Live from Montreux 1996, was released earlier this year. I was reading this review, and the writer singled out your performance as a highlight during a 13-minute version of “Walking in Space.” It was almost like the writer was caught off guard like he didn’t know that you could blow and improvise with that much intensity.
DS: Yeah, they make their judgments before they actually listen. It’s funny because I just played Montreux not quite a month ago. Have you ever been to Montreux?
RR: No, I have not.
DS: On the local television stations in all the hotels, there’s a channel called the Montreux Jazz channel. They broadcast previous performances from Montreux. This year was a 75th anniversary tribute to Quincy Jones so they were playing some of the earlier performances. One night, I came back to the hotel and turned the T.V. on, and it was that nightthe night of “Walking in Space.” I actually had never heard or saw it before. I thought, “Well, that’s O.K.”
RR: Patti Austin, Gerald Albright, and James Morrison were good on that track.
DS: Yeah, he’s pretty amazing, isn’t he? Wow. It’s funny that more people don’t know who he is. I don’t know why. I think he’s mostly just concentrated in Europe, I guess. You never really hear about him in the States.
RR: I’m speaking with Bill Payne from Little Feat for another site feature. I know you’ve played with the Feat in the past.
DS: Yes, I do know Bill. He also got me to play at a show with Nicolette Larson that he was MD of, and I’ve played with Little Feat at one time, too. I was at one point playing in a band with Michael Kamen, and it was opposite Little Feat in the early 70s when Lowell George was still alive. I was so knocked out with him as a musician.
RR: Speaking of that era, you were also part of a two-night run at Carnegie Hall in the 90s with Roger Daltrey celebrating the music of Pete Townshend & The Who.
DS: Oh, yeah. Roger’s a trip, man. Pete Townshend was there, and it was great. I very much enjoyed those performances. It was fun. Roger’s one of those guysactually, I met him back in the 60s, as well, back at the Fillmore.
RR: You’ve had many long-term relationships over the years based upon the quality of your musicianship. Would you like to talk about the history you share with Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live co-creator and executive producer?
DS: Lorne has always been very generous with me. When I actually was in Saturday Night Live, he was not, at that point, the producer of the show. There were a few years when he was out and Jean Doumanian was the producer in the early 80s. I had known Lorne since the early shows because I had been working with Paul Simon, and Paul and Lorne are very close. I think we did the second show of Saturday Night Live. I met Lorne then because it was a pretty small circle of people. Over the years, I knew him and [SNL musical director] Howard Shore pretty well. I certainly knew all those same circle of musicians and people that were around. When we had an opportunity to do Night Music, we went to Lorne to see if he’d be interested in producing the show, and he was. Broadway Video ended up producing Night Music so I had a working relationship when he was Executive Producer. There were some great moments. Hopefully, before too long, we’ll get some of those shows out on DVD. We had some great people on those showsthe Pixies, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Modern Jazz Quartet, Sun Ra, Al Green, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. The Residentswow, we had all kinds of people.
RR: You’re also on the latest Ween album, La Cucaracha on the song “Your Party.”
DS: Oh, yeah. Those guys are a trip, aren’t they?
RR: Yep. They said they’d never have a saxophonist on a record unless they could get David Sanborn, and they did.
DS: Well, I was happy to do it. I was actually familiar with their music. Their music is funny, do you know what I mean? It’s funny like Bob Dylan is funny. It’s real smart music and great and involving. I just like the fact that they go so many different ways. Every way they go, it seems like they really mean it. They’re not fucking around. When they asked me to do it, I didn’t hesitate at all. I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” I thought he sounded a little like Al Stewart when he was singing that song. (laughter)
RR:They appear to have assimilated all musical influencesAmerican or otherwise.
DS: It’s pretty hard not to. If you’re conscious, and you’re living your life, walking on the street, you’re going to hear all of this shit. You have to, at some point, be influenced by it. You try to take the good, and filter through it, but at the end of the day, it’s all there, it’s all part of it.
RR: Speaking ofyou are continuing your globetrotting throughout the rest of the year. You will be playing in Korea, Japan, Mexico, and various dates in the States.
DS: Yeah, I’ll be going back to Europe in the fall, and back to Japan, again, in December.
We’ll be doing five dates at the Blue Alley in Washington D.C., and several dates at the Blue Note in New York in November, and some dates in the Midwest in December, but we’ll be spending a lot of time in Europe and Japan in the fall.
RR: And, in the end, I would assume that you are pleased with Here & Gone.
DS: I am, now that I can step away from it for about it a minute, and let the dust settle because when you’re in the thick of it, it’s sometimes hard to see anything but what you wish you could have done better. So, sometimes when I step back from itI hadn’t really heard it until I was forced to listen to it in a radio interview, and then I thought, “Oh, O.K. That’s all right.” I’m very pleased with what other people did on the record. To that extent, I’m very happy with it.
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com