David Sanborn: A Sax Man's Soul Roots The genre-bending saxophonist with a ubiquitous tone has a new album out. Sanborn tells Scott Simon that the disc is partly a tribute to his early heroes of blues and soul: Ray Charles and his saxophonist, Hank Crawford.

David Sanborn: A Sax Man's Soul Roots

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Now listen closely to the sax in these songs.

(Soundbite of Bowie song)

(Soundbite of Springsteen song)

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Nothing but a...

(Soundbite of song "Funky President (People It's Bad)")

Mr. JAMES BROWN: (Singing) People, people. Don't you see what's going on? People, people. We've got to get together.

(Soundbite of song "Tuesday Heartbreak")

Mr. STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) I wanna be with you till the daytime comes. I wanna stay and never go away. Oh, baby, it's all right.

(Soundbite of Rolling Stones song)

SIMON: Music of Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and The Rolling Stones. But do you detect a similar tone running throughout? The saxophone of David Sanborn sure has a distinctive, some call it gorgeous, sound even as it crosses genres. Mr. Sanborn is most often identified as a jazz musician, but he doesn't call himself one. He has a new album out that's close to his roots and to his heart. It's called "Here and Gone." Let's listen.

(Soundbite of song "I Believe To My Soul")

Ms. JOSH STONE: (Singing) One of these days, and it won't be long. You're going to look for me, but I'll be gone. I believe, yeah. I believe, yeah. Oh, baby. You're trying to make a fool out of me.

SIMON: Of course that's "I Believe To My Soul," a Ray Charles classic, here featuring Joss Stone. David Sanborn joins us from our studios in New York. Mr. Sanborn, thanks for being with us.

Mr. DAVID SANBORN (Saxophonist): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And you had a birthday this week, so happy birthday.

Mr. SANBORN: Yes, I did.

SIMON: And you rather pointedly don't call yourself a jazz artist, do you?

Mr. SANBORN: I guess if - you know, if push comes to shove, I would describe myself more as coming out of the blues/R&B side of the spectrum. But I mean, if you play the saxophone, you certainly can't escape the influence of jazz. So it's not that I necessarily don't, you know, want to be called a jazz musician. It's just that I, you know, I don't know if that's totally accurate. Also, I have a great respect for the idiom, and I don't feel that I - my vocabulary is as strong as some of the other players who operate in the idiom.

SIMON: When you toss off a phrase like "So, I play the saxophone," you've got just about the most fascinating story that I can think of as to how you came to play the saxophone. You were kid and were a bit sick.

Mr. SANBORN: Well, yeah, I had polio when I was a kid. I was - when I was three years old I had polio, and I was in an iron lung for a year and then paralyzed from the neck down for a year after that, and gradually kind of regained some ability to move and to get around thanks to my mom and dad taking me down to Florida. And they would - my mother would take me out into the ocean and float me in the water of the Gulf of Mexico.

When I was 11 years old the doctors recommended that I play a wind instrument for therapy. So I was, you know, really had fallen in love with the saxophone right around that time because it was the - pretty much the main instrument of rock and roll in terms of solo. Little Richard, Fats Domino, people like that. And when the doctor said, why don't you play a wind instrument for therapy? I said, well, how about the saxophone? And there you go, you know.

SIMON: You used to hear it at basketball games?

Mr. SANBORN: Well, my father used to take me to basketball games, and this is when the Hawks were in St. Louis, who are now the Atlanta Hawks, but then were the St. Louis Hawks. And after their basketball game, they had a concert series. So they'd have big bands like Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. And Ray Charles was one of the bands after a particular game. And the saxophone players in that band were Hank Crawford and David "Fat Head" Newman. And Hank just had this great quality to his playing. It was just elegance and simplicity that I just - you know, it just, it was such a direct emotional thing. He seemed to be like the instrumental side of what Ray was doing vocally.

That music was everything to me. It kind of combined jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues. It wasn't any one of those things, but it was all of them. And that to me is like kind of the essence of American music. And I just remembered being - I was at the other end of this big field house, and Hank Crawford was playing an alto solo. All of a sudden the microphones went off, and I could still hear Hank just as clear as a bell. And I said, oh, that's - I'd like to learn how to do that.

SIMON: I think you did, though. Let's hear a little bit of "Stoney Lonesome."

(Soundbite of song "Stoney Lonesome")

SIMON: Critics have described your music as gorgeous. I read that in the introduction.

Mr. SANBORN: Some of them.

SIMON: All right, some of them. But enough so that it sticks. Do you have a description that you would use? Or do you hear something different on your end of the instrument?

Mr. SANBORN: Well, I mean, it's - you know, it's kind of impossible for me to be at all objective about myself, you know. I mean, I'm just always trying to more clearly and accurately play what I hear in my head. And because that changes all the time, it's a constant quest. You know, the great thing about music, it's an open sky, it just never ends.

(Soundbite of song "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town")

Mr. ERIC CLAPTON: (Singing) I'm gonna move, babe, way out on the outskirts of town...

SIMON: That's "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town," and a guy named Clapton.

Mr. SANBORN: A guy named Clapton, yeah. Well put.

SIMON: How do you interest Eric Clapton?

Mr. SANBORN: Well, Eric and I have been friends for a long time. We actually did a band project together. We did a tour. We toured Europe one summer. And I've played on his records, he's played on mine. And when I approached him about singing the song, he said, I mean, you don't want me to play? You just want me to sing? I said, well, you know. OK, you know. And he was so gracious to do this. And I mean, he just - he had such a, you know, an investment in this music. And he just understands the, you know, the intrinsic quality of, you know, what these songs are about.

Mr. ERIC CLAPTON: (Singing) It may seem funny, honey. Funny as could be. If we have a dozen children. Well, they all better look just like me. When we move, yeah, way back of town. Because we won't need nobody always hanging 'round. We won't need nobody, baby, always hanging 'round.

SIMON: Do you mind if I ask, is your health a factor now ever?

Mr. SANBORN: Yeah, it is. I have this thing called post-polio syndrome. And it's, you know, some of the symptoms start to come back a little bit. You get a little motor control problems, a little balance problems and stuff. But you know, hey, it's life. You know, I deal with it, and I try to stay healthy. I'm a pretty clean-living guy at this point in my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: That suggests it wasn't always the case.

Mr. SANBORN: He pointedly said. Yeah, it wasn't always true. But I unsuccessfully tried to kill myself. It didn't work. So, well, you know, it was the '60s man, what can I say? You know, the '60s and '70s, we thought, you know, we're just having fun. And then the fun turned ugly, and it was, you know, last call, and I didn't hear it. But you know, these days I try to say healthy because it, you know, it was really a question of, you know, do you want to play music or do you want to do what you were doing? And, you know, when it's the black and white answer like that, you know, it's pretty clear.

SIMON: Were you self-destructive, or just didn't know when the party was over?

Mr. SANBORN: Well, I'd like to think I just didn't know when the party was over. But there was probably a little bit of self destructiveness in there too.

SIMON: Is your favorite style the one you haven't played yet?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANBORN: You know, I'm going to use that.

SIMON: It's yours.

Mr. SANBORN: I'll go you one further. My favorite record is the one I haven't made yet.

SIMON: You know, we'd like to go out on a song, and we'd like to - well, let's throw open the request line. But, you know, David of New York, what would you like to hear as we go out?

Mr. SANBORN: What would I like to hear? Oh, my gosh. That we haven't heard? I'd like to hear "Basin Street Blues."

(Soundbite of song "Basin Street Blues")

SIMON: David Sanborn, his latest release out on August 12 is "Here & Gone." He joined us from New York. You can also come to our Web site, by the way, to hear more of David Sanborn: npr.org/music. Thanks so much, Mr. Sanborn.

Mr. SANBORN: Thank you very much.

SIMON: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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