Saxophonist David Sanborn is sometimes described as one of the most successful crossover artists in popular music history.
It may be that the phrase âcrossover artistâ has lost all meaning in 2018.
Forty or so years ago, it had strong positive and negative connotations.
In 1975, Sanborn released his debut album of jazz fusion and appeared on David Bowieâs Young Americans album.
Previously, Sanborn had performed with blues harpist Paul Butterfield, blues guitarist Albert King, and jazz pianist Gil Evans.
Achieving musical immortality by performing an indelible sax solo on David Bowieâs second-biggest single up to that point couldnât possibly be seen as a bad thing, could it?
Yes, it could be seen that way and it was seen that way by some.
In those days, jazz artists who crossed over to pop were often criticized by certain critics and music aficionados.
For example, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis was widely criticized in 1985 for joining Stingâs first post-Police band.
âI never understood that,â Sanborn said in a phone interview. âIs that, like, slumming? Thatâs just useless. Why not just leave it as, âI like this kind of music and I donât like that.â Someoneâs a traitor to the cause? What the (expletive) are they talking about?
âBranford Marsalis isnât entitled to like what he likes?â he said. âCanât he do what he does without there being some ulterior motive?â
Even if Sanbornâs name doesnât ring a bell for you, thereâs a good chance that you have appreciated his playing on dozens of songs.
To maintain oneâs disdain for Sanbornâs crossovers, a person would have to pretend not to be impressed by this partial list of artists with whom he has collaborated: Bryan Ferry, James Brown, Eric Clapton, Roger Daltrey, Jaco Pastorius, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins, Paul Simon, Jaco Pastorius, Todd Rundgren, James Taylor, Billy Joel, George Benson, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Little Feat, Roger Waters, Pure Prairie League, Al Jarreau, Loudon Wainwright III, George Benson, Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan, Ween, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Toto, and the Eagles.
Sanborn has stories about all of them, stories he has told many times. One thing they all had in common, Sanborn said, was work ethic.
âThey worked really hard,â he said. âPaul Simon worked hard. James Taylor worked hard.â
Sanborn performed for Stevie Wonder on Wonderâs album, Talking Book, and the saxophonist said the R&B legend would come in with a new song every morning.
âYou canât sit on the couch and wait for the muse to visit you,â Sanborn said. âYouâve got to get in there and slug it out every day.â
For all his accomplishments and accolades (eight gold albums, one platinum album, six Grammy awards), Sanborn remains a humble guy. Stubbornly humble in a way. In conversation, he seems ever eager to abolish B.S. and dig for the truth.
For example, he describes saxophone playing as less of a calling than a last resort.
âI had a passion for it and I didnât have a passion for much else,â he said. âItâs either this or, âDo you want fries with that?ââ
In truth, saxophone playing was prescribed to Sanborn initially. He contracted polio as a child, then spent a year in an iron lung and two years confined to his bed. A physician subsequently told him to take up a wind instrument to strengthen his lungs.
Sanborn chose the saxophone and inadvertently launched what would become a remarkable career.
Asked if he ever takes stock of his accomplishments, Sanborn replied, âIf youâre asking me if I bask in former glory, the answer is âNo.ââ
âSome of the things I have done in my past, I am very pleased with,â he said. âBut I donât spend a lot of time doing a âGet a load of meâ kind of thing. I am thinking about what I am doing. What I am doing now. Itâs the process that interests me.â
In life and in art, Sanborn just tries to stay as awake as possible. What this means when he is composing music is that he is not afraid to make bad art.
âI just try to stay open,â he said. âAnd pay attention. And try not to edit myself too quickly. You know: start to write something and say, âAhhh. Thatâs no good.â See it through. Itâs easy to be prematurely frustrated.
âI find that a lot of times, Iâll write a song. And Iâll get to the end of it and say, âWell, that wasnât very good,ââ Sanborn said. âBut it will end up being spare parts for another tune. Iâll take it apart and Iâll take some idea from that song and put it into another context.â
Sanborn always tries commit to the moment â not just in writing, but on stage and elsewhere.
âWeâre up there (on stage), a group of five of us, and weâre having a conversation,â he said. âYou want to be with interesting people on stage when youâre having that conversation and you want to be able to invite the audience in to participate in some way in that conversation.â
The stigma of crossing over no longer exists. Todayâs listeners generally donât bat an eye (or plug their ears) when an established artist experiments with a new genre or collaborates with a seemingly incompatible peer.
There are different challenges now to being an musician like David Sanborn. Many artists of Sanbornâs caliber complain about income lost through changes in how recorded music is consumed.
Sanborn isnât complaining.
âAgain, it brings into question: Why do you do what you do?â Sanborn said. âIâm at an age now where I just donât have the same passion for recording new material as I used to have. Iâm more into living my life, playing music, and seeing what comes next.
âThis is going to sound kind of corny,â he said. âI just enjoy waking up in the morning and experiencing the day. My day is my instrument and sitting at the piano and doing stuff without any particular purpose in mind.â