After saxophonist David Sanborn recorded the well-received Quartette Humaine acoustic jazz album with pianist Bob James as a one-off for OKeh Records in 2013, the label continued the conversation with the renowned alto sax star who one reviewer labeled the "soul of the project." That exchange led to Sanborn - deemed the most influential crossover artist of his generation and the most commercially successful saxman since his 1975 Taking Off debut - to link up with his old collaborative friend, electric bassist Marcus Miller, to serve as producer in creating the superb jazz-meets-R&B recording Time and the River, the 25th album as a leader in his illustrious genre-crossing career. "I felt like I was in good hands," says Sanborn. "Marcus can cover all the bases--as arranger, composer, instrumentalist, producer-and since we have a lot of history together, working together was like shorthand."
The top-tier core band of the recording comprises Miller on bass; Roy Assaf on keyboards; Ricky Peterson on Hammond organ; Yotam Silberstein and Nicky Moroch on guitars; Peter Hess on horns and flute; Marcus Baylor on drums; and Javier Diaz on percussion. Other players include trombonist Tim Vaughn and trumpeter Justin Mullens, and Sanborn enlists two vocalists: Randy Crawford, who does a gorgeous read of the classic "Windmills on Your Mind," and former Tower of Power lead singer Larry Braggs, who delivers a soul-train take on the Temptations' 1969 No. 1 hit, "Can't Get Next to You."
With two Sanborn originals, two tunes by French singer/songwriter Alice Soyer (including "Oublie Moi," featuring Sanborn's graceful alto circles and swoops), one by Miller (the R&B cooker "Seven Days Seven Nights" that was originally slated for the Bob James project but reworked for this album), the cover of the hot funk D'Angelo number "Spanish Joint" (from 2000's Voodoo) and David Amram's "Overture" from the film The Manchurian Candidate, Time and the River stretches out with a variety of styles and soundscapes. "The biggest thing was that both Marcus and I were trying to push out of the comfort zone," Sanborn says. "I don't want to settle into complacency, to just sit back and enjoy the view. I want to keep pushing. I want to keep going down a new path to see where it leads."
Indeed on Time and the River, Sanborn - a six-time Grammy® Award-winner with eight gold albums and one platinum - takes his expressive lyricism and singular ecstatic alto blowing to a new plateau, creating colors and textures through mesmerizing dreamscapes, R&B grooves, balladic beauty, deep funky soul and jazz-steeped improvisations. Undergirding most of the songs on the nine-tune collection is a percussive spice thanks to Diaz's laid-back polyrhythmic contribution. It's the first time the leader has used a percussionist since the death of his go-to percussionist Don Alias in 2006. "I decided to retire his chair," Sanborn says. "He was a hard act to follow. But Javier has that organic quality. Like Don, he pulls the sound out of the drums instead of hitting them."
Another important factor that's noteworthy on Time and the River is how Sanborn plays throughout the tunes as an integral voice in the band when he's not in a solo spotlight. "Normally I don't like to wear out my welcome," he says. "I'm usually the first to sit out. But the way this record is structured we're not playing a lot of solos after a head. My role is feeling like a part of the band, part of the rhythm section. I'm playing a lot of notes, but I'm laying back, weaving myself through the fabric of the tunes and interacting with the song."
Case in point: the joy-and-elevation leadoff tune, Soyer's "A La Verticale," which, Sanborn says, with its melodic legato serves as a "mission statement" for the album. "There's a contrapuntal reality with the piano and percussion setting the music up, then little guitar fills, little bass fills and me with my little fills," he says. "Everyone was interacting with one another all the time. I encouraged everybody to do that. It was like when I was growing up and listening to music, and whether it was pop or jazz, there was a lot going on at the same time - layers of rhythms and instrumentation. It was like Earth Wind & Fire, which made you stand up. That's what I was going for here."
The vocal tunes have their reference points. The cool and sweet-grooved "Windmills of Your Mind" may have been featured in the 1968 and the 1999 remake of the film The Thomas Crown Affair, but for this session, the rendition came from the Dusty Springfield songbook. Likewise, for "Can't Get Next to You," this new version owes more to the Al Green interpretation than to the Temptations. An additional voice comes from Sanborn himself, who says, "I think of myself as a singer on the alto, especially on this record. With all the textures going on, I'm able to rise up and play over the top like a vocalist."
Sanborn's originals include the Rhodes and Hammond B3-shaded "Ordinary People," a popish tune that arrived intact while playing the piano, and "Drift," inspired by D'Angelo. "I'm a huge fan of his music," Sanborn says. "I was trying to recreate a vibe for him. I wanted a sleepy, thick cushiony atmospheric sound. We did the thematic and chord changes on the sax and piano, then overlaid synth pads and Marcus overdubbed. It was demoed and recorded in my home studio."
Time and the River closes in a reflective and even mystical space with a duet between Sanborn and Assaf on piano on the moody "Overture," which is built on a melancholic 14-note theme. "I've always been haunted by that tune," Sanborn says. "It goes to so many interesting places. Part of it feels modal-like, part of it feels like church. I loved The Manchurian Candidate and I loved David Amram's writing. I've tried to record this for years, so I decided to just do it with the alto and piano. This is one of those moments that's a gift."
As for the title of Sanborn's remarkable new album, Time and the River holds special significance. "The river is really for a mundane reason," he says with a laugh. "For many years, my wife and I lived in a Manhattan brownstone on 69th Street between Columbus and Broadway, with my studio upstairs and guys like Pat Metheny around the corner and Jazz at Lincoln Center so close by. But we sold it and moved upstate to Tarrytown, which is still close enough to get into New York for the juice of the city. But our house overlooks the Hudson River, which is one of the U.S.'s great rivers. So I see it flowing everyday. The river is moving and so is time."
Incidentally, the symbol for river in Japanese is three vertical lines, as represented on the album cover, and is pronounced "sanbon." "When I play in Japan, I always hold three fingers up when I come onstage," Sanborn says. "And everyone knows what I mean."
As for what's beyond Time and the River, Sanborn beams. "As artists we keep pushing because this is what we do," he says. "I want to learn something new everyday, whether it's listening to the outtakes from Charlie Parker With Strings to Michael Brecker to D'Angelo. What a great thing music is. It's the key to spirituality. It humbles you. It's so vast, so great. You can never master it and never get to the end. You just keep working to find those transcendent moments - all the stages along the way of the journey. As a kid, I knew I had to be around music."
David Sanborn · Time and the River
OKeh · Release Date: April 7, 2015