Reunited on Blue Note at Sea ’23, Randy Brecker and David Sanborn go way back. How far? The two were teenagers in the early ‘60s when they both attended the National Stage Band Camp in Indiana, along with other young jazz talents like Keith Jarrett and Gary Burton. “Randy and I bonded at that time,” Sanborn explains. “We just kind of hung out together and had a musical affinity, and we remained friends over the years. Matter of fact, when I first came to New York, Randy was one of the first people I called. What little studio work I got was pretty much through him. And we’ve just been friends ever since.”
Back then, Brecker was the real jazz aficionado in both knowledge and chops, at least compared to Sanborn who had come from more of a soul and R&B background. “I think Randy was much more fluent in the language of bebop than I was,” says Sanborn. “And he was certainly more educated musically than I was, so I always looked up to him. He was in musical situations that were much more sophisticated in a certain way than some of the ones that I was in.”
Brecker remembers that initial meeting and being equally impressed with the 15-year-old Sanborn. “He stood out,” Brecker remembers. “Even then, he was already Sanborn. He developed it further, but he’s always had a distinctive sound and overall conception since his teens. There was something in his sound and overall conception that was just different from everyone else. There’s no way to describe the sound other than it’s just soulful.”
The two, along with Randy’s brother Michael on tenor saxophone as well as Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone and Barry Rogers on trombone, would go on to form one of the most distinctive and in-demand horn sections of the ‘70s and ‘80s, recording with a who’s who of popular artists of that time and applying their signature funky note-bending sound to songs like Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters” and Bruce Springsteen’s “10th Avenue Freezeout.” Eventually, the horn section would get a record deal of their own, as the Brecker Brothers, a name Randy was initially opposed to, given Sanborn’s key role.
But the group under that name went on to record six albums for Arista, with a surprising number of chart-topping hits. Sanborn’s distinctively soulful sound was a key element in the group’s success. Of course, Sanborn would go on to have much success on his own as a first-call studio musician and as a recording artist who redefined contemporary jazz. In the ensuing years, he’s recorded more than two dozen albums, won six Grammy Awards and has had eight gold albums and one platinum album (Double Vision with Bob James).
Brecker got a little insight into the concept behind the unique Sanborn sound, when the two found themselves on the road in Stevie Wonder’s band. “Dave told me one night that he was trying to do what Stevie does on harmonica on alto,” Brecker recalls. “And that made a lot of sense.” Sanborn readily admits that the trumpeter, who plays everything from mainstream jazz to big band to Brazilian to jazz fusion, always possessed an incredibly wide range of interests and facility. “He was pretty ecumenical about his approach to the music and he was not a know-it-all or jazz snob,” Sanborn says. “I always remember him being very open. Randy was really ubiquitous and not really judgmental about the kind of music that he played. And he kind of fit in everywhere while still maintaining a distinctive voice.”
One thing the two most certainly shared was an affinity for the soul jazz of the ‘60s. Brecker was raised in the Philly music scene, a true center of jazz that included many of the jazz organ greats like Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland and the appropriately named Richard “Groove” Holmes. “Randy played with Horace Silver,” Sanborn adds. “Horace, along with Cannonball Adderley, was one of the original players of soul-jazz and back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That very earthy, bluesy style.” Sanborn in turn came up playing with organ players in his native St. Louis.
“[The organ] is just so great to play with,” Sanborn explains. “When that bottom end is there and you play alto, you can ride above that. There’s this pull that all great organ players get, where they just push the knob forward. It just was a foundational sound of my childhood. To me, you can’t beat it. It’s just so spontaneous and agile.” Sanborn was captivated by the sound of organ-sax combos like Jimmy McGriff with Hank Crawford and Ray Charles with David Fathead Newman, who each would have a formative influence on the saxophonist.
One thing is for certain. You can be sure that the music these two old friends present on Blue Note at Sea ’23 will feature jazz with a whole lotta R&B, soul and funk.
This article was written by Jazz Cruises contributor Lee Mergner. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org