Saturday, February 9, 2019

An old saxophone master with an influential sound heads a top-drawer quintet at the Palladium

David Sanborn has one of the most distinctive sounds among veteran jazz saxophonists. That has helped give
him a saving difference from the "fusion" genre with which he has been associated by reputation since the 1980s.

He brought a quintet with heavy-hitting integrity to the Palladium Friday night. The new group, with a crackerjack rhythm section backing up a front line of trombone joined to the leader's alto sax, exemplifies the authentic jazz tradition of a small-group dynamic that relies on the maximum individuality of its members.

This set-up not only allows Sanborn to maintain his stature away from "smooth" jazz, but prudently gives a few concessions to age insofar as the 73-year-old maestro can husband his resources.  In two sets before a large audience at the Carmel arts palace, Sanborn poured out his patented intensity and sassiness in measured amounts. Perhaps the phrasing is less torrential these days, but the signature tone remains deeply rooted and readily inviting: the hallmarks of his popularity continue to stand up against Father Time.

A pensive David Sanborn
His able colleagues were trombonist Michael Dease, keyboardist Andy Ezrin, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Billy Kilson. The hard-bop niche formula — nicknamed T 'n' T for front lines consisting of tenor sax and trombone — is tweaked to a higher register in this group. Dease's mastery of the trombone's upper range made him a compatible partner for Sanborn's alto. With his butter-smooth facility and soft burr to his tone occasionally recalling Slide Hampton, Dease also provided a contrast with the leader's aggressive, if amiable, style. He got a showcase cadenza in Marcus Miller's "Moputo," unaccompanied in a series of challenging sequences and quasi-vocal smears that delighted the audience.

That piece, which ended the first half, also featured the idiomatic command of keyboards displayed by Ezrin, who did so much with his rhythm-section partners to lay down an infectious groove that set up Dease's solo. The bassist had already exhibited his solo chops in a florid solo on Michael Brecker's "Half Moon Lane."

After intermission, Ezrin and Williams were Sanborn's sole partners in a pop-song adaptation, "All in the Game."  The Sanborn ballad style, which has been aptly described as heart-wrenching, was extensively deployed. His playing aroused my mixed feelings about quotes in jazz solos, however; incorporating the first phrase of "It Might As Well Be Spring" a couple of times was clever, but a more extensive quotation from "When You Wish Upon a Star" toward the end seemed to bury the less-familiar tune ("All in the Game") under one that's in everybody's ear-worm supply.

Another Brecker piece brought back the full quintet, very nifty in the abstract theme, which takes an oblique approach to its harmonic underpinning in the manner of the Ellington classic "Cottontail."  The changes were fully embraced by the time the solos rolled out. The late Roy Hargrove's "Spanish Joint" was a tidy delight, and the announced last number, "On the Spot," rewarded the audience's evident enthusiasm for Kilson's drumming with plenty of room for him to vary his patterning from understated triplets to a full-on funky display.

Again, it was a wise indication that, no matter the eminence of the star-leader, the band's the thing in a satisfying jazz concert. And this band is about much more than an old-timer's vanity. That's a minimal element in what Sanborn has to offer, as was underlined by his amusing, often self-deprecating, oral program notes.

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