David Sanborn, aged 69, is now at the ‘legend’ stage of his career. For over forty years he has been a go-to sax player for some of the world’s greatest musicians including David Bowie and George Benson, as well as a stand-out act in his own right. This ability to crossover genres and create jazz and fusion sounds that are popular and commercially successful to boot has often drawn the ire of purist jazz fans, who baulk at the heavily-produced studio sound and claim he is peddling - oh horror! - smooth jazz (something he denies). Yet it works. Well. Commercial success for Sanborn comes from a trademark sound that can generate a huge range of emotions in the listener and tell a story in ways that many other sax players cannot.
Time and The River demonstrates Sanborn’s voice-like sax playing and deep jazz roots on many tracks and also highlights his readiness to move into soul and funk at the drop of a hat. It represents his first collaboration for fifteen years with bassist and former regular sparring partner Marcus Miller. One can instantly hear the effect that Miller brings to the record: a crystal clear and crisp sax sound, a soulful vibe and radio-friendly rhythms.
Across the ten tracks of the album, Sanborn and Miller touch a variety of musical bases. Opener Can’t Get Next to You, featuring singer Larry Braggs, is down and dirty New Orleans blues with plenty of gusto but, perhaps, little originality. Second track Drift is a soulful, plaintive ballad with lovely fretless bass by Miller and luscious Fender Rhodes fills by Roy Assaf, tugging at the heart strings through the poignancy of some of Sanborn’s runs. A la verticale is a jaunty number, scaffolded by fun african rhythms by percussionist Javier Diaz, but lacks sufficient substance to become a firm favourite. Other tracks of note include Oublie Moi, which gives Sanborn free rain for some daring runs and complicated breaks as the track builds in momentum and sound; Overture, a surprisingly charming ballad featuring just Sanborn and Roy Assaf on piano; and last track, Windmills of Your Mind, featuring legendary soul diva Randy Crawford, who’s restrained interpretation of this classic sits nicely with Sanborn’s sweet melodies.
So, there are great tracks, but the album as a whole maybe lacks any sense of event or the explosive energy that was demonstrated by Sanborn live at his April gig at London’s Barbican centre, where - let loose of the shackles of the studio production desk - he was able to play without limits and, with a fantastic live band, give the punters a demonstration of contemporary jazz saxophone at its finest, which went down a treat. This album only partially captures that energy and precision-engineered sax runs for which Sanborn, live, is renowned. Interesting point to note: at the Barbican gig, it was the late 'eighties and early ‘nineties classic tracks such as Maputo and Run for Cover which got the crowd off their feet and cheering. Time and The River, although a good album, doesn’t quite reach those heights
Why is that? Well, if I were to look for a reason it would be the studio production by Marcus Miller which has - surprisingly - led to an album that is at times too subdued and too produced, with a sound that one might argue descends into the formulaic soft-jazz and blues-y sound that has given Sanborn’s critics plenty of ammunition for the accusation of meanderings into smooth jazz territory. Sanborn feels, at times, overly restrained and, while the compositions are of great quality and the playing without artifice and bombast, it just lacks a little of the sparkle that would allow this reviewer to say: “it’s a classic!”
However, I can be forgiving. True, Time and The River is not Sanborn’s best album by any measure. But after a few listens, one can draw from it a sense of a jazz master at ease with himself who can still find the runs and chord changes that hit the ear and defiantly asked to be listened to. So crisp and attacking is Sanborn's distinctive sax sound that after just half a bar of the first sax melody on the first track, one knows - this is undoubtedly a David Sanborn album. There are very few sax players whose sound is instantly recognisable and, while it has its flaws, this album does give Sanborn a platform on which to demonstrate how that distinctive sound can work on so many different musical canvasses.
Rob has run the London Jazz Meetup [www.meetup.com/london-jazz] for eight years. It brings together London-based jazz fans to support live music and have fun. He likes his jazz “plugged in” as a fan of fusion and jazz-rock. For him, jazz is fundamentally about the bass and the groove.