Bob James & David Sanborn Quartet
2013 San Francisco Jazz Festival
San Francisco, CA
June 17, 2013
Now in its 31st year, the San Francisco Jazz Festival has a new home, thanks to the updated digs now available via the SF Jazz Center which opened back in January. Over the course of the festival’s 12-day run there would be performances by John Scofield, Gerald Clayton, Gregoire Maret, Kendrick Scott, and the reunion of Bob James and David Sanborn, which also happened to coincide with the release of their new album, Quartette Humaine (Okeh Records, 2013). Although both artists have crossover ties that embrace electronics and pop devices, this would strictly be an all-acoustic affair that shed new light on both gentlemen’s talents.
There’s really not a bad seat to be had in the Robert N. Miner Auditorium and the sound is simply state of the art. In fact, even with the robust fullness of the acoustics, there is also a sufficient sense of balance and clarity that makes this one of the finest halls in the country. As such, James’ piano spoke with crystalline lucidity across the instrument’s entire register and Sanborn’s less strident approach came across with an apt sense of restraint that fit this music to a tee.
Accompanied by James Genus on bass and Steve Gadd on drums, the quartet opened the show with the James original “Montezuma.” Anchored by Genus’s bass vamp, Sanborn and James would share the first section, with the melody at the bridge echoing a few melodic phrases from “Stella by Starlight.” Gadd would change up the groove in parts, which enticed James to kick off a particularly fine solo before the alto stepped back in for the opening refrain.
The ballad “Geste Humain” was another prime of example of how Sanborn would use restraint in delivering the piece’s beautiful melody. Allied with a bit of vibrato and breathiness, at times he certainly recalled Hank Crawford, one of his major influences. Following a somewhat mysterious explanation from James regarding the duo’s reunion, the pair revisited Marcus Miller’s “More Than Friends,” an iconic number from their original 1986 collaboration, Double Vision (Warner Bros). Again, a sense of freshness accompanied this acoustic reworking that allowed the piece to take on a new life.
In the same manner as the album is billed as a tribute to the late Dave Brubeck, so too would the show be marketed as such, despite the fact that such an association proved minimal at best. One of only a pair of obvious nods to Brubeck would come with the title of the James original “You Better Not Go to College,” which presumably has some connection with the fact that Brubeck often performed on college campuses. A highlight of the show, Sanborn would build the tension during his solo only to then resolve it with a silvery flourish that would have made Johnny Hodges proud. The first set then closed with the Ben Tucker standard, “Comin’ Home Baby,” given a firm foundation by Genus’s beefy double stops.
A steady tick of eighth notes put the second set in motion with the groove-based James original, “Deep in the Weeds.” This was the kind of funky number that Sanborn cut his teeth on back in the days. It certainly struck a chord with Genus, who delivered one of his best solos of the night, chock full of strummed notes and harmonics. By contrast, the delicate “Sofia” served as homage to Sanborn’s wife and proved a lovely vehicle for the saxophonist to boot.
Another classic from Double Vision, “Maputo,” was updated with a fresh new approach that really seemed to bring out the best in James. His smoldering statement included a peak moment when he used his left hand to create a rumbling vamp while using his right to reiterate a two-note riff. The resulting effect brought cheers of praise from the audience. James also slapped a new coat of paint on “My Old Flame” and a barrelhouse piano solo that was also much lauded.
The final tune to be performed by the entire quartet would be a new original from James written in the style of Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” the odd meter being efficiently negotiated by all concerned. This, not surprisingly, ushered in an encore in the guise of “You Don’t Know Me,” a sedate and piquant duet from just the pianist and saxophonist.
In the final analysis, not much was left to be desired from this sizable performance. Our leading men more than substantiated their credentials as valid jazz musicians who just so happen to have track records that have included time spent in pop territories. In fact, if one would be pressed to nitpick, a reservation might be that Gadd seemed almost reticent to do much more that swish his brushes on the snare most of the night. Still, this did little to detract from a well-paced recital.