From side player to solo collaborator

Music legend David Sanborn tears it up on the sax with his band at the Dakota.

by Danylo Loutchko

What do The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder all have in common?
At one point, they all counted David Sanborn as their saxophone player.
This Sunday and Monday, six-time Grammy winner Sanborn will play four concerts with his Electric Band at the Dakota Jazz Club. 
Sanborn first picked up the sax as a young child as part of his therapy after contracting polio. This early exposure to music launched his illustrious career as one of the most well-known saxophonists in the music business.
In previous years, Sanborn toured with artists like James Brown, Eric Clapton, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Marcus Miller. 
He is also famous for playing the saxophone solo in David Bowie’s hit song, “Young Americans.”
Sanborn talked to the Daily about his upcoming concert, his career and his thoughts about music.
You’re known for being a part of all sorts of musical genres. How has your style and sense of genre changed through the course of your career?
It’s hard for me to answer that because we’re talking, like, 50 years ago. Throughout my career, I played in a lot of different contexts, and it never occurred to me that there was anything but continuity between all these various kinds of music. I didn’t think of them as being separate. I just thought, “This is this, and that is that” — they’re just different musical situations and you adapt, but who you were as a player doesn’t change. 
You play appropriate to the situation. If you’re being honest as a player, you’re reacting to what you’re hearing. It’s not an intellectual choice. You make decisions based on reacting to what’s going on around you. When you’re in the moment, you just respond. 
Who was your favorite artist to work with, or which artist that you’ve worked with most lined up with your musical sense?
Once again, I can’t really narrow that down to one person. I enjoyed working with people who are creative and dedicated to what they were doing and had a voice and an identity to what they were doing as artists. From Gil Evans to David Bowie to James Taylor to James Brown — for different reasons, all those people were equally inspiring. People that I learned from, people I felt a bond with in a way that felt like it was a mutual understanding. I learned from all of it. 
How do you balance doing solo work with doing work with other artists?
These days, I’m either doing stuff where I’m the leader or things that I collaborate with people on. I’m going to go out later this year with Christian McBride and his trio, and I’m sure that whatever we come up with, it’s going to be an amalgam of whatever identity we discover as a result of playing together. 
I don’t really work for other people anymore — I either collaborate or I do my own stuff. I was a sideman for years, but the last sideman gig I did was 25 or 30 years ago. 
What was the impetus for going solo? 
I wanted to be more responsible for the content that I was working on. What comes with that is establishing an identity as a solo artist and finding ways of expressing myself. 
At a certain point, it becomes limiting to play in service of someone else’s music. And as great as they might be to work with, they create the context, and you have to react to that. I wanted to be more responsible for creating the context.
On a more philosophical note, what does music mean to you, and how has that changed over the years?
It’s gotten deeper over the years. It’s been everything to me. In so many ways it saved my life physically, spiritually and emotionally. When I was a kid, I was very sick, and I picked up the saxophone as therapy. Music created a world that I wanted to live in. It’s an outlet, and it becomes, in a way, … a definition of who you are. 
What do you want audiences to experience at your shows?
I want them to feel like they’re making a connection and realize that they are a part of making it happen. I don’t play in a vacuum. Although I play for myself, part of it is getting the energy back from the audience. What we do as musicians is we’re storytellers, and we tell our story to whoever’s listening and try to involve our audience in the story that we’re telling. 
The David Sanborn Electric Band
Where The Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
When 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday
Cost $30–60