David Sanborn – Then Again (review)

David Sanborn – Then Again – The Anthology (Warner Bros / Rhino) review

For all the accolades we give saxophonists John Coltrane and Charlie Parker – in many ways, David Sanborn was (and is) even more influential.  Then Again, a two-CD set, chronicles the first twenty years of his solo career.

No other musician helped legitimize the smooth jazz movement in its infancy during the mid Eighties –  Sanborn gave the genre it’s first true star.  And, despite their great recordings, neither Coltrane nor Parker ever played on a hit record – something Sanborn has made a career out of (“How Sweet it Is” from James Taylor and “Young Americans” from David Bowie are just two examples).

But, to label Sanborn as simply a smooth jazz artist is a crime.  His music transcends any one genre – he’s tackled rock, jazz, Latin, and R&B.  Yet, throughout his solo career, one thing has remained constant – the groove.  Whether slow or fast, Sanborn always has a soulful rhythm that underlies all his music.  While Kenny G has scored more hit singles, he sacrificed integrity in the process, something Sanborn can’t be accused of.  No one plays a more soulful sax than David Sanborn.

The two-disc set opens with the “The Whisperer,” whose production and chord progression remind me of a mid-Seventies’ TV theme,  while “Benjamin,” a beautiful James Taylor composition, is over way too soon, clocking in at a mere minute and a half.  It’s Sanborn’s fifth album, Hideaway, where things really take off.  It introduced a soulful sensuality that certainly connected with an audience, making it his first album to go gold (yet, only the luscious ballad “Lisa” is included here, although there is a live version of “Hideaway” later in disc one).

Things heat up even more with As We Speak, represented here by four tracks.  Sanborn’s mastery of the sax is a true delight.  His ability to evoke pure emotion is on full display on tracks like “Love Will Come Someday,” truly being an additional vocal to singer Michael Sembello’s sultry delivery.  After that, the saxophonist teamed with keyboardist Bob James for the smooth jazz summit Double Vision, which yielded the genre-defining hit “Maputo.”  “Since I Fell For You” brings together Sanborn with the great Al Jarreau.

As the Eighties wore on, synthesizers and electronic percussion began creeping into his sound.  Yet, Sanborn took this technology and created “Chicago Song,” one of his most infectious pieces of music.  The Latin-infused party atmosphere of “Bang Bang” proved that the he wasn’t content to stay in one style of music for too long.

While disc one was roughly sequenced in chronological order, disc two groups songs together more by style, kicking off with the soulful “Back Again,” again sung by Sembello, sounding more than just a little bit like Stevie Wonder in his excellent delivery.  Then we get a series of fantastic ballads – As We Speak is mined once again for the sad “Rain on Christmas,” which  is similar in motif to the jazz standard “Misty.”  Linda Ronstadt joins him for the traditional “The Water is Wide.”  Sanborn recorded Pearls, an album of jazz standards backed by lush strings.  That album is represented by the slinky “Try a Little Tenderness.”  The newest track comes from 1996 – “Missing You” is another excellent ballad with some of Sanborn’s grittiest playing to date.  His diversity is no better seen than on the set’s final two tracks – “Let’s Just Say Goodbye” is pure funk, while “Anywhere I Wander” borders on blues-rock.

Then Again provides a comprehensive overview of one of the most influential sax players of all time.  Because it covers many different styles, it’s an extremely enjoyable listen – it’s Sanborn’s sexy horn playing that holds it all together.  –Tony Peters