Jazz Remembrance: David Sanborn, Way Beyond Smooth

By Steve Elman

He was lucky to be so well-rewarded for doing what he loved to do, and we were always lucky to hear him.

Saxophonist David Sanborn at the 2011 Stockholm Jazz Fest. With his trio: Joey De Francesco (organ), Byron Landham (drums) Photo: Павел Корбут

David Sanborn was an artist as well as a superb craftsman.

The saxophonist’s death on May 12 draws a dark line under a brilliant and very successful career in music, and it has prompted many appreciations from those who acknowledge his depth of talent and versatility. Often the compliments have been backhanded, along the lines of “Even though he was known for his work in smooth jazz, he was a fine player.”


I first heard Sanborn as a member of the horn section in The Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1968 or so. I knew from his first solo that this was a guy to watch — he had a piercing sound on alto sax, with “the cry” that marks the work of so many players I love — Wayne Shorter, Johnny Griffin, Booker Ervin, David “Fathead” Newman, and the man who primarily influenced him, Hank Crawford. Even though Sanborn was born in Florida and grew up in Missouri, he might as well have been raised in Texas, where so many saxophonists learn “the cry.”

That show wasn’t a fluke. Sanborn’s first great solo on record, on the title tune of Butterfield’s “In My Own Dream” (Elektra, 1968), shows a mature sense of smarts — how to build and shape an improv so that it adds richness to its context.

He never lost that skill, and he brought it to every project in which he participated. How many other musicians have contributed to recordings by Stevie Wonder (“Tuesday Heartbreak” from Talking Book [Tamla, 1972]), James Brown (“Don’t Tell a Lie” from Hell [Polydor, 1974]), David Bowie (title track from Young Americans [RCA, 1975]), Robert Cray (“Acting This Way” from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark [Mercury, 1988]), The Rolling Stones (“Pretty Beat Up” from Undercover [Rolling Stones, 1983]), Bonnie Raitt (“I Can’t Make You Love Me” from Luck of the Draw [Capitol, 1983]) and Ween (“Your Party” from La Cucaracha [Rounder / Chocodog, 2007])?

Not to mention his innumerable uncredited studio appearances in soundtracks and commercials. For a while, Sanborn was so ubiquitous that whenever we heard that sound, my wife and I would look at each other and say, “Another job for David Sanborn.”

It took a while for producers and engineers to capture that sound properly, His early solo recordings suffer from too much processing. By the time we get to my favorites among his solo efforts — Another Hand (Elektra Musician 1991), Upfront (Elektra, 1992), and Hearsay (Elektra, 1994) — engineers knew how to put enough space around that sound so that you could hear it in all its fullness.

Did he ever make a recording that was a “challenge” to his listeners? No, but that didn’t stop him from recording Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Cape Town Fringe” and Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’” and making them accessible to a public that may never have heard those tunes.

Saxophonist David Sanborn. Photo: Facebook

Did he repeat himself from time to time? Yes. No excuses here; there were times when he sounded like he was phoning it in, but they were relatively infrequent in such a prolific career.

Smooth jazz? I guess not. Could Kenny G[arfein] have collaborated so successfully with Mike Stern (Give and Take [Atlantic, 1997]), Gil Evans (Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix [RCA, 1974]), Bob James (Double Vision [Warner Brothers, 1986] and Quartette Humain [Okeh, 2013]), Bobby Hutcherson (Enjoy the View [Blue Note, 2014]), and Joey DeFrancesco (Enjoy the View, as above, and Only Everything [Decca, 2010])?

I saw Sanborn for the last time with DeFrancesco in 2012. He sounded absolutely comfortable in the context of a classic organ-trio format, and I wrote about the show admiringly in the Fuse.

In that post I wrote this, and I can’t conclude with anything better now:

At a moment between tunes, Sanborn spontaneously reflected on his status and his career, told his audience how happy he was to be playing at Scullers, what a pleasure it is for him to do what he loves to do and be paid for doing it. He did not need to mention how lucky a successful musician has to be to make a living in The Business, how many things have to go right for him or her to be on that stage, and how easily they can all go wrong.

He was lucky to be so well-rewarded for doing what he loved to do, and we were always lucky to hear him.


I’ve created a Spotify playlist with a lot of the tunes mentioned above. I hope that it provides more than two hours of good listening for you, with a few surprises.

Steve Elman’s more than four decades in New England public radio have included 10 years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host on WBUR in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, 13 years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB.

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  1. Allen Michie on May 29, 2024 at 9:35 am

    Check out his gorgeous and dramatic semi-classical playing on Michael Kamen’s “Concerto for Saxophone.” It’s yet another angle on his versatility.

    (P.S. Sanborn doesn’t play on the version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” that appears on Raitt’s “Luck of the Draw.” Bruce Hornsby does, though, and does some of his most beautiful playing.)

    • Kenji Crooms on May 29, 2024 at 11:09 am

      My older cousins turned me on to Jazz and David Sanborn when I was about 11 years old. Jazz touched and connected with something inside of me that relates to my spirit. Sanborn’s music has been on point for all the years since. Now I’m 55.

    • Carmen Akua on May 29, 2024 at 8:30 pm

      First time I saw/heard David Sanborn, he was a semi-regular on tv series, Night Heat. It was a series about police detectives and officers in Canada. Sanborn’s character was a nightclub owner.
      Watching the series one night, there was a segment where he was playing with George Duke and Earl Klugh. I said to my ex-boyfriend, “I don’t know who this actor is, but he looks like he’s really playing that saxophone.”
      He said, “Most likely he is because he’s a jazz musician.”
      I asked what’s this guy’s name, and my ex said, “His name’s David Sanborn.”
      After that, I followed his career, and was delighted that he was played different genres of music besides jazz. I finally saw him in concert with Bob James & Fourplay in 2017. Excellent concert!
      What I really loved about David Sanborn’s style as a musician, whatever he was feeling as he played, his audience felt each and every note right along with him.

  2. John Anderson on May 29, 2024 at 1:59 pm

    I loved his sax playing and became a convert after listening/purchasing Double Vision.

  3. Kerry Carroll on May 30, 2024 at 3:12 pm

    I learned about David Sanborn from the Backstreet album. The single “Tear for Crystal” is one of my favorites. Loved Sanborn’s saxophone. One of the best to do it. R.I.P

  4. Rex H on June 1, 2024 at 6:41 pm

    Sanborn was awesome & its very sad he’s gone. I love saxophone and in my opinion, he was, by far, the most expressive sax man I’ve ever heard. As Steve mentioned, he covered a lot of genres and did it all exceptionally well. To me, he took essences of those genres and turned the songs into something exceptional that enhanced the song and the genre (i.e., Corners ( for Herbie), Harlem Nocturne, Cristo Redempter and the absolutely exquisite Lotus Blossom). I have never understood why David and his sax work wasn’t top 5 all time. Ok you put Miles & Coltrane first, they were innovators. But for expressiveness and pure feeling, I’ll take Sanborn (& Miles did a lot of covers too). I have a playlist with 110 of David’s best, culled from all his CDs, and it’s all I’ve listened to for the last 10 years. Never grows old. God bless you David!!

  5. Brenda Jordan on June 1, 2024 at 7:59 pm

    I was introduced to David Sanborn listening to Bob James Touchdown album. I kept up with his music 🎵 from then on.

    • Mar Sowizdrzal on June 3, 2024 at 8:04 pm

      David Sanborn has been a part my life since I was very young He was on David Bowie s live in Philly in 72.’ Wow, what an album! Sanborn is all over it. Saw him perform over 10 times. He headlined the Saratoga jazz fest in I think in 92′. Blew the roof off that place. Seen him play with Bob James in Boca beautiful jazz club. I may have seen one of his last shows in Tampa. They did a jazz jam there with Jonathan Butler and his bass buddy. They had to help him get on stage.I had a feeling he was doing well. He still played his heart out. Will miss seeing you play.

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