A handpicked compilation focusing on Sanborn’s smoother output.
John Eyles 2012
Alto saxophonist David Sanborn has released dozens of albums in his own name, straddling jazz, R&B and pop. But many listeners will be more familiar with his session work. His keening sax sound has featured prominently on hundreds of recordings, including David Bowie’s Young Americans and Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book.
Then Again: The Anthology spotlights Sanborn’s own albums. It focuses on his peak years from 1975 to 1996 when he was recording for Warner Brothers and Elektra Records. He averaged one album release a year, winning Grammy Awards for three of them. This double album features 29 tracks, handpicked by Sanborn himself, from 16 of those albums.
The album opens with The Whisperer, from Sanborn’s first solo album, 1975’s Taking Off. It exemplifies the issues jazz fans have had with Sanborn: his tone and phrasing are invariably sublime but too often he was recorded in contexts where he was the sole interesting player; often he has sounded like a session player brought in to liven up a funk-by-numbers backing track. The Whisperer is a melodic, danceable instrumental but, despite the presence of such musicians as Michael Brecker and Don Grolnick, it never catches fire.
Sanborn’s music from this period spawned the "smooth jazz" genre, but he has balked at being described as such. Nonetheless, there is plenty here which merits that label, notably vocal tracks Love Will Come Someday and Since I Fell for You, the latter sung by the oh-so-smooth Al Jarreau.
In total contrast, a track such as Bang Bang showcases Sanborn in a party mood, live in the studio and bursting with infectious energy. That track is taken from the 1992 album Upfront, produced by bassist Marcus Miller who oversaw several of Sanborn’s better albums.
Upfront included a fine version of the Ornette Coleman classic Ramblin’, which Sanborn has omitted here. Just as oddly, he only includes one track from Another Hand, his 1991 album with more adventurous jazz players like guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden. In selecting tracks for this anthology, Sanborn seems to have emphasised his smoother side at the expense of his more exploratory outings.
While it is rare to find a compilation album that satisfies everyone, in this case it feels as if an opportunity has been missed. Maybe more than two discs would be required to properly display the breadth of David Sanborn’s talent.