by Calvin Wilson
Jazz has always been at the heart of David Sanborn’s sound. But in recent years, the alto saxophonist has downplayed the pop and funk influences that brought him commercial success, focusing instead on a blend of jazz and R&B that recalls the exuberant approach of his hero, the late Ray Charles. In the first of two sets at Jazz at the Bistro on Monday evening, Sanborn was at his glorious best.
Fronting a trio that included organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Byron Landham, that also made room for lyrical interludes. The set drew heavily from recent albums on which Sanborn paid tribute to Charles and his key sidemen on saxophone, Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman.
Things got off to an engaging start with “Comin’ Home Baby,” an upbeat tune that found Sanborn playing loud, deep and strong as DeFrancesco matched him for sheer energy and imagination. That vibe persisted on “Brother Ray,” which also introduced a gospel tinge to the proceedings.
There was more than a hint of rock ‘n’ roll to Sanborn’s rendering of “The Peeper,” and “Let the Good Times Roll” benefited mightily from DeFrancesco’s unpretentious singing.
But the slower-paced material was just as effective. “Basin Street Blues” showed off Sanborn at his most rapturous, and his performance of “Only Everything” exemplified the art of ballad playing.
Throughout the set, Sanborn, DeFrancesco and Landham maintained a musical rapport that made whatever came next sound at once surprising and inevitable – a strategy that kept the crowd delighted from the first to the last note.
Sanborn, who has been called the most influential performer on alto sax since bebop legend Charlie Parker, doesn’t always receive his due from jazz critics and historians, who tend to equate mainstream popularity with compromised artistry. But Sanborn’s status as one of the great jazz saxophonists is undeniable, as this performance beautifully demonstrated.