Review: Bob James and David Sanborn at the Barbican (EFG London Jazz Festival)

Bob James and David Sanborn

Bob James and David Sanborn
(The Barbican, November 16th 2013. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

There’s nothing like preconceptions to trip you up. I came to the Barbican expecting an evening of sheer pleasure, and that was exactly what I got. But I was also expecting a certain style of playing. Both Bob James and David Sanborn have enjoyed enormous commercial success, to the extent that they have become largely identified with mainstream pop, crossover music and smooth jazz. So I anticipated something silky, virtuosic but perhaps a little undemanding.

It just goes to show how wrong you can be. My expectations were thwarted immediately when, instead of coming out to sit at a Fender Rhodes and perform some of his fat and funky beats, Bob James instead strolled to a gleaming Steinway and addressed himself to it in a delicate impressionist style, seeking and extracting a melody from the flow of notes.

And rather than the lush, creamy alto I had prepared myself for, David Sanborn played sharp silvery sax, lean and sinewy. These were two men with a mission. And that mission was to push their immense musical talent in a new and surprising direction.

Their collaborators were the legendary session drummer Steve Gadd, the percussion hero of hundreds of tracks in my record collection and no doubt yours as well. On upright bass Scott Colley was a new name to me, but it’s not one I’m likely to forget. He has studied with Charlie Haden and played with Dizzy Gillespie, Jim Hall and Herbie Hancock. At one point in tonight’s concert David Sanborn laughed with pleasure as Colley went climbing on a nimble vertical excursion, never leaving the beat behind despite his splendidly limber solo explorations.

But the first of the musicians to really make his mark was Steve Gadd. His wonderful drumming, like a heartbeat, provided a visceral impact. You could feel it raising your core temperature. He is a revelation; the perfection of the pulse he provides is breathtaking. The minimalist perfection of his beat is wired straight into the nervous system of the audience, sending to the signals to set your foot tapping.

It was altogether a state-of-the-art rhythm section which locked together into a unity and then provided a flawless smooth expanse of ice on which Sanborn proceeded to go skating. His playing was sharp, incisive, lean. Rather than the rich, fat sound I expected his alto sax was sparse, spare and cutting.

Bob James provided wily, wise piano, playing a lot of notes with a lot of space. His timing took what might be frenetic and instead rendered it utterly relaxed. There is a great, playful confidence to his music. As Montezuma neared its climax, Steve Gadd came to the fore again, breaking up the beat like a man smashing down a house at the same time he’s building it. This was soloing and comping intertwined until they became a third thing.

On Alice Soyer’s Geste Humaine Sanborn suddenly delivered the kind of rich gorgeous sax that is his trademark, playing in a sort of judicious agony, drawing out thoughtful lyricism from Bob James in a measured, leisurely, articulate rush. They were accompanied by just brushes from Gadd and a plain, perfect striding bass from Colley that was immensely rich in its simplicity. Bob James’s piano playing climbed a stairway that ended in midair. And David Sanborn was right there, waiting for him.

Before they launched into Bob James’ You Better Not Go to College James gave the mission statement of the new quartet. Describing them as stripped back and “unplugged” he said they were deliberately aiming to evoke the classic David Brubeck quartet. And suddenly the fresh, lean sound made complete sense. Inspired by Brubeck’s Your Own Sweet Way, the tune opened with a conversation between Bob James and David Sanborn, full of melodic agreement. James soloed before Sanborn came swirling in for his own set piece, a concise, funky wailing that blossomed into a gospel shout, carried off with economy and poise. Steve Colley was all over the place — in a good way — dancing with his bass in a liquid boogie which dwindled to a hearty strumming. Bob James reintroduced himself and now you could hear Brubeck in his note choices.

In an evening with too many delights to inventory, a few highlights can’t go unremarked. The diversity of Bob James’ playing was striking. From the introduction of Sanborn’s Sofia where his piano offered a dreamy scatter of notes before drawing out a wistful melody, to his own Deep in the Weeds where James’ playing was so insistent and funky that it set your head nodding — and then he responded to Gadd’s virtuoso drumming and Colley’s reverberating strings by offering a concise Count Basie commentary of maybe eight notes in a minute. On the same number Steve Gadd played a dense, breathlessly exciting solo, stirring a devil’s broth of percussion with such speed, yet such poise, that each segment he played seemed to still be hanging in the air as he played the next one, in a kind of audio persistence of vision, a benign blur that made it seem like there were two drummers… or one with four arms.

This quartet is striking out into unexpected new territory, and what they’ve discovered there should please even the most hardened jazz purist. A delightful surprise, and one of the gigs of the year.

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. A superb review, which neatly sums up what was a thrilling evening of breathtaking jazz.. I've waited for over 30 years to see David Sanborn live. Coupled with the superb musicianship of Bob James, Steve Gadd and Scott Colley, we were in very safe hands indeed! It was truly jazz nirvana.

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