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David Sanborn

David Sanborn is a bona fide saxophone superstar. Performing for more than 40 years, he has released 24 albums, including six certified gold and one platinum, collected six Grammys and collaborated with a who’s who of jazz, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll luminaries along the way.

Sanborn and his electric band, postponed at Blue Note last fall because of the wildfires, will finally make it to Blue Note for six shows, April 12-14.

On the phone last fall, Sanborn talked about how, after decades of performances, he avoids getting into a musical rut. “I really enjoy being surprised and keeping it fresh,” he said. “Whether that means re-interpreting older material, or playing new stuff, or just playing in a different way. If you’re playing the same material, it’s so easy to fall into a rut where you start repeating yourself.”

“I think what I enjoy most is encouraging the guys in my band to surprise me. It sounds kind of silly, but you have to stay awake when you play. There’s all kinds of ways to fall asleep on the job. You can kind of go on automatic.”

“It’s important, especially when I’m playing songs that I’ve played for 40 years, whether it’s ‘Chicago Song’ or ‘The Dream’ or ‘Maputo.’ In order to not drive myself crazy, or just phone it in, I need to change it up, the vibe of the tune, the feel, whatever.”

While Sanborn admires tightly arranged performances done well, his bent is improvisational. “I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with fixed arrangements, where everything is timed and every move is choreographed, but that’s not what I signed up for,” he said. “A lot of great music is made in that frame of mind, a lot of the Motown stuff, where literal choreography is worked out.”

“I find it hard to imbue those moments with real meaning when you’re doing kind of the same thing every night, down to the way you’re moving on stage. You can’t argue with how great the music of James Brown is, and what a great show that was, but it’s definitely choreographed. I’m not making a judgment about it; I’m just saying that that’s not particularly my thing.”

Sanborn, who will turn 73 in July, talked about the effect of aging on his playing and his endurance, particularly in light of his medical history. “I had a debilitating childhood illness,” he said. “I had polio and I still suffer the effects. There’s a certain inherent weakness that affects parts of my body, and I have to deal with that on a daily basis.”

“Does it get harder as I get older? Yeah, it gets more challenging, and breathing is part of it. Your stamina, your ability to travel long distances and play. Sometimes I’ll fly for five hours and then go do a sound check and do a gig, then do the same thing the next day. That is incredibly difficult, more and more. I don’t have the ability to bounce back as easily as I once did, so I have to really pay attention and pace myself.

“What you do is you make the best with what you’re given. You change the way you play. You play to the best of your abilities, and because of the nature of how I play—I basically make s**t up—who’s to say if it’s right or if it’s wrong, because I’m making it up. The bulk of what I do is improvised, so I can respond to my physical reality at any particular moment in the way that I choose to play.”

For Sanborn, improvisation is both a remedy and a creative joy. “Improvising gives me great pleasure,” he said, “and hopefully engages a part of the audience that wants to go with me on that journey. I don’t mean to be pretentious about it, but I think any good musician wants that, and invites you in to take the trip together. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it and find out something you didn’t know before.”

Thursday, April 12–Saturday, April 14, 7 p.m. (doors open 5 p.m.) and 9:30 p.m. (doors open 9 p.m.). $55-$125. Blue Note Napa. 1030 Main St., Napa. 707-880-2300. BlueNoteNapa.com.

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David Kerns is a Napa-based freelance journalist. You can view more of his work at DavidKerns.com.

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