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No Boundaries

Musician David Sanborn sees music as more than a lifestyle accessory.


Sanborn started as a sideman, playing on some of the classic recordings of the late ’60s and early ’70s. He started with the fantastic, if now largely forgotten Paul Butterfield Blues Band, hooked up with Stevie Wonder for his post-Motown breakthrough, then with David Bowie in his “Diamond Dogs” and “Young Americans” periods. In each setting, his distinctive alchemy of passion and control complemented some of the best work of seminal artists.

“It really set up my attitude,” Sanborn recalls. “Working around intensely creative people is a nice way to make a living.”

“But I got burned out being a sideman,” he says. “Someone else is always calling the shots; there’s very little give and take. The job is to enhance their music, be their foil. By 1975 I felt the urge to control the context.”

He was playing with James Taylor’s band at the time, and the singer-songwriter helped launch Sanborn’s solo career by using him as the opening act on their next tour.

Twenty-eight years later, Sanborn still holds to the open ethos of his early career. “Back then people weren’t peevish about borders and delineation,” Sanborn remembers. “There was a real sense of ‘let’s try this,’ see what works. We would get music from everywhere, always looking for ways to expand boundaries. It was nothing like the current Balkanized, vulcanized attitude.”

“Records used to be important. There was excitement and anticipation of the next Miles album, or the next Beatles or the next Dylan. Now music is more of a lifestyle accessory.”

Sanborn’s openness was exemplified by his mid-’90s TV program “Night Music.” His guests included everyone from Sonny Rollins and Sun Ra to Richard Thompson and James Taylor. The musicians would join in unlikely combinations, like funk bassist Bootsy Collins with avant-jazz composer Carla Bley.

The show didn’t last, but the same eclectic muse informs his latest release, “Timeagain,” which mixes serious jazz standards from Donald Byrd and Herbie Mann with serious pop from Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. Its one of Sanborn’s strongest recordings, with generous solo space for his A-list band, including bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Russell Malone.

“There is so much beauty in music,” Sanborn says. “And as many points of view as there are people. I try to appreciate all of them.”

Asked what makes for a successful performance, the saxophonist was straightforward. “If I’m totally into it, if I’m getting off and the band is in the zone, then I’m happy. The audience can help, I would like them to come with us, but it’s a very selfish thing.”

Jazz giant Sonny Rollins said much the same thing when he came to Richmond a few years ago. It’s an honest and honorable answer from a successful and popular musician who is his own most critical audience. S

David Sanborn plays the Canal Club on the corner of 17th and Dock streets, Oct. 7. Tickets cost $28-$35 and can be purchased through TicketMaster.

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