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Bob James and David Sanborn perform June 25, 2013 at the Toronto Jazz Festival. (Chris Cameron)
Bob James and David Sanborn perform June 25, 2013 at the Toronto Jazz Festival. (Chris Cameron)

Why you shouldn’t call saxophonist David Sanborn’s new album smooth jazz Add to ...

Saxophonist David Sanborn, asked how he thinks listeners will react to Quartette Humaine, is frankly stumped. “It’s always a mystery to me, what people are going to like or not like,” he says, over the phone.

Quartette Humaine is the second album he’s made with Bob James, and it’s very different from its predecessor, 1987’s Double Vision. Where that album was groove-based, heavily arranged and extremely popular – it sat in the Billboard Hot 200 for 63 weeks – this album is all acoustic and all instrumental, aimed more at the head than the hips.

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“This definitely is not that record,” Sanborn agrees. “So I think if people go into this thinking it’s that, they’re going to be disappointed or surprised.”

And that, from James’s perspective, is a good thing.

“I see the boredom coming out of a lot of the audience,” he says, referring to the smooth jazz radio format that made Double Vision such a hit. James, a keyboardist and arranger whose soulful early work regularly crossed over to the R&B charts, is sometimes referred to as a founding father of smooth jazz, a term he describes as “not particularly flattering.”

“We certainly didn’t coin that term, nor are most of us particularly happy being typecast in it,” he complains.

What bothers him about smooth jazz isn’t just that it’s more a marketing term than a musical category, or even that the term has become a sort of all-purpose insult for reviewers. No, what gets his goat is that the music swept into that category has become so excruciatingly boring.

“My instincts are that a lot of the audience members are crying out for somebody to help them out of this deep morass of sameness and predictable, uninteresting, unadventurous music,” he says.

“We aren’t on a crusade with this record; we did it because it came from our heart. But it isn’t probably going to fit into many of the formats of the so-called smooth jazz [outlets], and as far as I’m concerned, that’s good news.”

Quartette Humaine is billed as an homage to the quartet recordings of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, but it didn’t start out as that. “It was more the idea that Bob and I wanted to play together,” Sanborn says. “We were both in the same place about wanting to make a record that reflected where we were at this particular time, a record where we were both playing a lot.”

It was James who suggested taking the Brubeck/Desmond quartet as a model. “Not necessarily to do a record that pays tribute to them specifically, like playing their songs or that,” Sanborn says, “but more just the spirit of what those records were, the interplay of the saxophone and the piano.”

In particular, they liked the way Brubeck’s structured, classically influenced approach contrasted with Desmond’s slightly acerbic lyricism. “I love that role of the piano being the orchestra,” James says. “And when I have the responsibility of having the piano take that role, it forces me to dig down to wherever I can grab my technique from. I do have somewhat of a classical background.”

That classical background becomes foreground on Follow Me, a churning, odd-metered tune in the vein of Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk .

“I threw him a little curve ball by coming in with this piece,” James says of Sanborn. “I wanted to inject some physical virtuosity into the mix, and something with a bit of a classical background. But the piece was very odd, and we were struggling a bit with getting a good performance of it in the studio. And as I was listening to the way Dave played on it, we both realized that he was conjuring up his classical background, from when he had studied saxophone. He even started to sound like – what’s the guy’s name?”

“Sigurd Raschèr,” says Sanborn, referring to the early 20th century virtuoso many consider the father of classical saxophone.

“So Dave’s sound, floating over the top of it, was to my ears a very different sound than what he would normally choose – a very pure, classical sound. It was fun for me to share that aspect of my compositional talent, and see how he would rise to the challenge of interpreting it.”

Bob James and David Sanborn perform June 25 at the Toronto Jazz Festival.

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