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David Sanborn’s keening alto sax sound and treasure trove of soulful melodies rescued so many inconsequential pop tunes from artistic oblivion, it was inevitable he would beget a legion of imitators. Ubiquitous in the 1980s, distant traces of the Sanborn style linger in the candyfloss tones of smooth jazz. Remarkably, the original has not been devalued, and Sanborn’s passion, commitment and professionalism are a byword in the rather scruffy world of jazz.
It was slightly ironic, therefore, that this set at Ronnie’s should be delayed due to unprecedented problems with the sound. An irritating hum and a complimentary drink later, and drummer Oliver Lake Jr laid down a thumping New Orleans shuffle, Sanborn delivered two well-placed notes to check the sound quality – not up to scratch as we were to learn later – and the alto-saxophonist’s night of triumph-in-adversity began with a tightly arranged fusion of jazz and funk that turned into a live soundcheck.
Sanborn’s stock-in-trade is an upgrade on the rhythms and balladry of sophisticated urban blues. Finely wrought shuffles and funky grooves are the foundation, but they have a habit of darting off in unexpected directions. “Comin’ Home Baby” suddenly changed key, a 12-bar-blues was elongated with odd harmonies, a power ballad transformed into a soulful lament. And throughout Sanborn’s high-note wails, pentatonic runs and soulful laments were delivered with emotional purpose, even when interrupted for five minutes for a final tweak on the sound.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Sanborn resumed with a slightly conservative repertoire – “Tin Tin Deo” taken as a fast samba, “Soul Serenade” a skewed bar-room blues and “Brother Ray” sets the tone – but with subtleties of tone clearly audible, Sanborn and his band delivered full-force jazz and rhythm.
With drummer Lake and bassist Richard Patterson locked tight and revelling in their rhythmic roles, keyboardist and musical director Gil Goldstein was free to add subtle shades, tones and counterpoints, providing a perfect cushion for Sanborn’s soaring sax. A controlled drum solo and Goldstein’s poised keyboard contributions stood out, but this was very much Sanborn’s night.
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