Many musicians dream of having their own ‘sound,’ a musical signature that is so strong, that you only have to hear a few notes to identify who is playing. Alto saxophonist David Sanborn was such a musician. Sanborn, who died on 12 May 2024, aged 78, from prostate cancer, was one of the most influential – and most imitated – alto saxophonists to emerge from the late 60s/early 70s.

Sanborn’s instrument of choice for most of his career was a Selmar Mark VI saxophone with a modified Dukoff mouthpiece. His signature sound was bright, edgy and wailing, infused with vibrato and altissimo. It’s a sound that is on countless jingles, studio recordings and film soundtracks. Although he was a small, slight man, and childhood illness had left him with limited lung capacity and a left arm smaller than the right, Sanborn could play powerful, extended runs, full of fire and fury.

David Sanborn was born in Tampa, Florida on 30 July 1945, but grew up in Kirkwood, Missouri. He contracted polio at the age of three, and when he was eleven, a doctor recommended that he take up the saxophone to improve his breathing capacity. Sanborn took to the alto sax like the proverbial fish to water and was soon a competent player. Hank Crawford, musical director of the Ray Charles band was a big influence on Sanborn’s playing, as was Charles’ blend of gospel and R&B. At the age of fourteen, he was sitting in with Albert King and Little Milton.

After studying music at Northwestern University and the University of Iowa, Sanborn moved to Los Angeles and joined Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band, playing at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. From there, he moved to New York and was soon a busy member of the burgeoning session scene. He toured with Stevie Wonder and played on the tune ‘Tuesday Heartbreak’ on Wonder’s 1972 album Talking Book.

In 1974, Sanborn toured with David Bowie, and his saxophone became the lead instrument on Bowie’s 1975 pop/soul album Young Americans. Bowie encouraged Sanborn to incorporate electronics with the sax and on the track ‘Fascination,’ his alto sax is connected to a wah-wah pedal. It was in the early 70s that Sanborn began a long musical association with Gil Evans, which included numerous tours and recordings – Sanborn appears on albums such as Svengali (1973) and Gil Evans Live at the Royal Festival Hall, London (1978).

Sanborn’s position as a jazz musician was an ambiguous one for some jazz fans, and even Sanborn – a modest man – was at pains to distance himself from such a label, ‘I sometimes get looped in with jazz musicians because I play sax and improvise,’ he told Bill Kohlhaase of the Los Angeles Times in 1996, ‘But if you know my music, you wouldn’t confuse it with jazz. There are certain stylistic and rhythmic elements that keep me from being in that category.’

But then, Sanborn was wary about all labelling, as he continued the discussion with Kohlhaase, ‘It’s so difficult to fragment music like that in the first place. How can you say “from here to here is jazz, from here to here is funk or R&B;”’? When you get on the border lines, things get fuzzy. You can clearly say that Wynton [Marsalis] is a jazz player. But others, like Greg Osby and Pat Metheny, skirt the border. When you start using the kind of rhythmic elements [used by them] and in that spirit, it gets even harder to classify music in these artificial ways.’

Another label he disliked was smooth jazz. In a 2005 interview with Mary Bentley, she suggested that he was one of the founders of smooth jazz, a ‘credit’ which horrified Sanborn, ‘I’m always a little uneasy with that phrase – smooth jazz, as opposed to what? So I was never quite sure exactly what that meant. I know what it is kind of. I know what it’s become as a marketing tool. The ironic thing is that, if I’m [the] so-called, the king of that, or one of the founders of that, there are many smooth jazz stations in the country that don’t play my music, which would seem odd. For me, it’s hard for me to think about that. I basically played the music that I felt all my life, and whatever label people put on it is kind of really none of my business.”

Part of the problem was Sanborn’s undoubted versatility and that he was comfortable playing across a wide range of musical genres that included jazz, jazz-rock, jazz-funk, pop, rock and even classical – in 1990 Michael Kamen released the album Concerto for Saxophone, featuring Sanborn. The pop/rock artists Sanborn played with include Steely Dan, Elton John, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bryan Ferry, The Eagles and The Rolling Stones.

There was an also an impressive range of jazz artists who Sanborn recorded and/or toured with. In the mid-70s, he joined The Brecker Brothers band, forming part of the band’s formidable horn section that also included Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone and Randy Brecker on trumpet. Sanborn also played with Ron Carter, Jaco Pastorius, George Benson, Tony Williams, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Bob Berg, John McLaughlin, Al Jarreau, Joe Beck, Bob James, Maynard Ferguson, Marcus Miller and the aforementioned Gil Evans.

Sanborn also played several times with Miles Davis, joining him onstage at the 1986 Montreux Jazz Festival and playing on the three closing numbers – ‘Burn,’ ‘Portia,’ and ‘Jean-Pierre.’ Miles and Sanborn both appear on the track ‘Don’t Stop Me Now,’ on the rock band Toto’s 1987 album Fahrenheit. In 1988, Miles, Sanborn, Paul Shaffer and Larry Carlton formed a street band in a scene in the movie Scrooged, and in 1989, an episode of Sanborn’s TV jazz programme Night Music featured Miles Davis, who was played with Marcus Miller and Sanborn on two tunes, ‘Tutu,’ and ‘Hannibal.’

Like many top session players, Sanborn got a solo record deal and his first album, Taking Off, was released in 1975 and featured an array of jazz musicians, including guitarists Joe Beck and Steve Kahn, the Brecker brothers, Steve Gadd and Don Grolnick. The 1977 release, Promise Me The Moon (billed as David Sanborn Band) included a guitarist who would have a long and productive musical association with Sanborn, Hiram Bullock (who also composed two tunes and sang on two numbers).

Sanborn discovered Bullock, when he was playing in a club across the road from the venue where Sanborn was playing. Sanborn was so impressed by what he heard that he invited Bullock to join his band. Bullock was a gifted musician, as well as an exciting, energetic and extrovert player – the present writer recalls a David Sanborn concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall where Bullock – using a wireless microphone attached to his guitar – leapt offstage, ran up the stairway at the side of the auditorium, and played a solo right at the back of the hall, amongst the audience. Over the next two decades, Sanborn and Bullock would tour and record together. Hiram Bullock died in 2008.

Sanborn’s fourth solo album, Hideaway, released in 1980, proved to be a turning point in his career. For the first time, it featured a musician who would have a long and productive musical association with the saxophonist: bassist Marcus Miller.

The track ‘Carly’s Song,’ marked the first time Marcus Miller played on a David Sanborn session. The two men would meet again as members of the Saturday Night Live Band, and it was during rehearsals with the band that Miller first felt the full impact of Sanborn’s playing, as he recalled in the liner notes for the 2020 Sanborn anthology Anything You Want, ‘[It was] the first time I heard a musician who made everybody’s head turn. His sound was so strong and piercing, and he played with such commitment…His sound is unlike any other alto saxophonist…so big and multi-timbral.’

Sanborn’s next album Voyager (1981) featured four Marcus Miller compositions, including ‘All I Need Is You,’ which gave Sanborn the first of six Grammy awards he would win during his career. It also included Sanborn’s ‘Let’s Just Say Goodbye’ and Miller’s ‘Run For Cover,’ which became concert favourites.

With each subsequent album release, Miller’s role grew, as would the range of instruments he played on Sanborn’s albums, which often included bass, guitar and various synthesisers. The 1982 release, As We Speak also included four Miller compositions, as well as a different tone from Sanborn’s sax – he had switched to Yamaha saxophones in a sponsorship deal. He also played soprano sax on four of the nine tracks, including Miller’s frenetic number, ‘Rush Hour.’ It later emerged that Sanborn’s alto sax had been stolen during the sessions, and so the soprano sax was brought into action.

As We Speak was also the first album to be dedicated to Sanborn’s only child, his son Jonathan (every subsequent album would bear the same dedication). Jonathan would become a bassist, playing a duet with his father on the title song of the 1994 People Get Ready – a Tribute to Curtis Mayfield

The next album, Backstreet (1983) marked the first time Miller also took on the role as Sanborn’s producer. Michael Colina and Ray Bardani also shared the role, on this album. The template for the album – jazz-funk numbers like ‘Believer’ and ballads like ‘Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)’, which featured Luther Vandross on vocals, would be used for many subsequent albums. Straight From The Heart (1984) was recorded in a studio with a live audience and included energized re-workings of songs such as ‘Hideaway’ and ‘Run For Cover,’ as well as Al Green’s ‘Love and Happiness, featuring Hamish Stuart from the Average White Band on vocals. A video of the album, featuring Sanborn, Miller, Stuart, Hiram Bullock, Don Grolnick and Buddy Williams was later released.

In 1986, Sanborn teamed up with keyboardist Bob James to record the album Double Vision. It included Miller’s tune ‘Maputo,’ and Al Jarreau on ‘Since I Fell For You.’ Produced by Tommy LiPuma, it was a critical and commercial success, staying in the Billboard charts for 63 weeks, and earning both a platinum disc and a Grammy award. Despite the success, the two musicians would not collaborate on another project until 2013, and the album Quartette Humaine, a straight-ahead jazz recording that included Steve Gadd on drums and James Genus on bass.

A Change of Heart (1987) saw Sanborn working with several producers – Marcus Miller, Michael Colina, Philippe Saisse and Ronnie Foster, with Jason Miles one of

the programmers. The album included concert staples like ‘Chicago Song,’ and ‘Tintin.’ The follow-up album, Close-Up (1988) offered hard-edge funk tracks like ‘Slam,’ and ‘Tough,’ and ballads like the Thom Bell/Linda Creed ballad ‘You Are Everything.’

Sanborn’s 1991 album, Another Hand, marked a radical shift in musical direction, as he released a straight-ahead jazz album that featured Bill Frisell on guitar, Charlie Haden, bass, Mulgrew Miller piano, and Jack DeJohnette, drums. Hal Willner produced eight of the ten tracks, and Miller, two. It was a critical success but fans used to Sanborn’s jazz-funk excursions were not so enthusiastic. Upfront (1992) marked a return to jazz-funk and featured keyboardist Ricky Peterson, who formed a 20-year musical association with Sanborn. Eric Clapton played a solo on ‘Full House.’

Hearsay (1994) included a lively cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’’ and five joint Sanborn/Miller compositions. Sanborn co-composed seven of the nine tunes, and it’s often forgotten that he was also a notable composer – songs of his, such as ‘Let’s Just Say Goodbye,’ ‘Lisa’, ‘Hideaway’ and ‘I Told U So,’ were firm favourites with his fans.

Pearls (1995) was produced by Tommy LiPuma and arranged by Johnny Mandel. The album was a mix of covers of standards and contemporary tunes, including ‘This Masquerade’ and ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.’ The standout track for this writer was ‘Pearls,’ a haunting ballad composed by Sade – Sanborn’s playing is incredibly moving on this number. Songs From The Night Before (1996) was produced by Ricky Peterson and included a cover of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Infant Eyes.’ Inside (1999) featured several vocalists – Cassandra Wilson, Lalah Hathaway, and Sting, who sang on the Bill Withers song ‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’

Time Again (2003) was produced by Stewart Levine and was the first time for many years that Marcus Miller did not feature on a David Sanborn album. The band included Ricky Peterson and Gil Goldstein on keyboards, Christian McBride (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums). The album featured a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely.’ Closer (2005) was another Stewart Levine production which put the emphasis on Sanborn’s ballad playing, and included renditions of James Taylor’s ‘Don’t Let Me be Lonely Tonight,’ (with vocals by Lizz Wright) and Sanborn’s gorgeous composition, ‘Sofia.’ ‘Cape Town Fringe’ saw Sanborn exploring the sounds and rhythms of South African music, and there was a fine cover of Horace Silver’s ‘Senor Blues.’

‘Here and Gone’ (2008), produced by Phil Ramone, was a tribute to the sound of Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman and Ray Charles. It included Eric Clapton and Joss Stone, with Wallace Roney and Lew Soloff on trumpet. The tunes included were Hank Crawford’s ‘Stoney Lonesome’ and Ray Charles’ ‘I Believe To My Soul.’ Marcus Miller composed the tune, ‘Brother Ray.’

Sanborn formed a jazz trio with organist Joey DeFrancesco and Steve Gadd, and the band released Only Everything in 2010, another homage to Ray Charles, and featuring a four-piece horn section, Joss Stone gave a gutsy vocal performance on ‘Let The Good Times Roll,’ with James Taylor providing the vocals on ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So.’ In 2014, Sanborn and DeFrancesco played a storming gig at Ronnie Scott’s, with jazz critic John Fordham describing the night as, ‘an eloquent, personal and revealing performance from one of jazz’s enduring saxophone greats.’

Sanborn’s last studio album, Time and the River, was released in 2015 and saw Sanborn reunited with Miller, who produced the album. The album was bright and upbeat, and included a cover of The Temptations’ hit ‘Can’t Next To You.’

In 2013 Sanborn was involved in another jazz trio, DMS, which comprised of him, George Duke and Marcus Miller. The band played various gigs across the USA. Sanborn also recorded with vibraphone player Bobby Hutcherson on the latter’s final album before his death in 2016, Enjoy The View (2014). The other players were Joey DeFrancesco (organ and trumpet) and Billy Hart (drums).

Sanborn was heavily involved in the media. He hosted a radio programme, The Jazz Show with David Sanborn, and between 1988-1990, the TV show Night Music, whose guests included Sonny Rollins and Pharaoh Sanders. He also hosted a podcast, As We Speak, and on Youtube, published a series of videos under the title sessions, with music events from his home. Guests included Bob James, Michael McDonald, Marcus Miller and Sting.

The decline in album sales meant many artists took to touring and selling merchandise as a means of generating revenue. It wasn’t unusual for Sanborn to do 200 gigs a year. In 2018, Sanborn was diagnosed with prostate cancer. These days, men with advanced prostate cancer can receive treatment that enables them to lead productive lives for years, and Sanborn continued to tour. Sanborn was touring (and even had gigs booked for 2025) when his illness overtook him

Sanborn was forced to cancel a gig planned for mid-May 2024, explaining to fans that: ‘For the last weeks I’ve been dealing with unbelievable pain in my spine that prohibited me from walking, let alone playing my horn. We were finally able to diagnose the issue as two stressed fractures in my spine. Last week I underwent an unexpected spinal surgery. The doctors assure me the procedure was a success, but recovery is 6 to 8 weeks of doing nothing, including not playing my horn.’

Sadly, he would not pick up his horn again. In one of his last interviews, Sanborn explained to Nice Nivan the importance of not playing safe, ‘You can’t go up on stage knowing what you’re going to play. You have to go out there and take a risk.’ Sanborn never played safe, but he did play majestically, and he has left behind a vast and diverse musical legacy that will be enjoyed for generations to come.