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Once-stricken saxman: Music 'gave me my life'

  • Story Highlights
  • David Sanborn suffered from polio as child; playing sax a way to build wind
  • Sanborn has played with many, hosted own show in '80s
  • Saxophonist's new album is "Here and Gone"
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By Shanon Cook
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Ask saxophonist David Sanborn to reel off a list of career achievements, and you'd better get comfortable. It's a long list.


David Sanborn's latest album, his 23rd, is "Here and Gone."

Even he looks surprised when he reaches the end of it, and quips, "I split the atom and cured cancer."

Sanborn's career spans jazz, rock, pop and R&B. He's played with Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, James Taylor, David Bowie and Carly Simon -- just to name a few. He's won six Grammys, hosted the TV show "Night Music" in the early '80s and has performed with the bands for "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night with David Letterman."

OK, so maybe curing cancer is a bit of a stretch -- but Sanborn is certainly no stranger to fighting his own health battles. Having suffered polio in his childhood, he says his mantra growing up was "Hey guys, wait up!" as he trailed his peers. At age 11, he took up the saxophone on his doctors' advice that the wind instrument would help build up his lungs.

Now 63, Sanborn has just released "Here and Gone" (Decca), his 23rd album. It's a sultry, bluesy nod to early influences Ray Charles and Hank Crawford, and features guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Joss Stone and Sam Moore. Video Watch Sanborn play a few notes »

Sanborn invited CNN to his Manhattan home to talk about his uneasy relationship with the sax, letting Eric Clapton play and sing, and why you probably shouldn't call his music "smooth jazz."

CNN: When you've been playing an instrument for many, many years as you have, do you ever get to a point where you ...

Sanborn: Hate it?

CNN: Well, that wasn't going to be my question, but ... do you?

Sanborn: Sometimes, yeah. But it's like hating your arm at a certain point, because [the instrument] is really supposed to be an extension of you.

CNN: I was going to ask ... do you ever get to a point where the instrument no longer surprises you?

Sanborn: No. I'm waiting for that time. I think that goes along with discovering things as a musician and discovering new places to go. To me, the object of practicing is to allow you to play what you hear. But you're always hearing new things, so you never get to the end of it.

That's the great thing and the frustrating thing about music; you never really master it. Music is like an open sky. You know it's out there ... and there you are.

CNN: Is being a successful musician a pretty self-centered existence?

Sanborn: It's self-involved in that you have to go into your imagination and bring stuff forth. I look at the artistic process as like experiencing the world, channeling it through your personality and sending it back out there. That's the process. So it certainly is involving. And because it's coming from you, it's very "self," so you tend to get preoccupied. It's tough to be in a relationship with a musician, because it reads sometimes as this ego and self-involvement when it's really just concentration and focus.

That's a good excuse, at least. That's the cover we all use!

CNN: Is it fair to say that your instrument is always your first love?

Sanborn: It's more like it's a part of you. So it's not like it's this other thing that you love more than your mate. It's like saying, "Do you love your hand more than you love your wife?" Well ... yes and no.

CNN: You've said that making your new album, "Here and Gone," was a labor of love. How so?

Sanborn: Well, it was just going back to the kind of music that inspired me in the first place. Ray Charles, Hank Crawford, David Newman. And kind of getting back in touch with where I came from.

CNN: Eric Clapton ... is he a good friend of yours?

Sanborn: He's been a friend of mine for a long time. I asked him to sing on the record, and he said, "You mean you don't want me to play?" And I said, "Well, I didn't want to presume!"

He said, "Well, you know I kind of need to play when I sing," and I said, "Feel free." And he did a great job. He inhabited that song ["I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town"].

CNN: Is it true that you don't like to consider yourself a jazz musician?

Sanborn: I just think those labels are not very helpful. It doesn't really describe what we do. I think music is an evolving, changing, beautiful thing that absorbs influences from everywhere. Jazz music by its very nature is just a conglomerate of a lot of different kinds of music. ... As you grow and develop as a human being and as a musician, you absorb all these influences from everywhere, and it comes out in the music that you play. To limit it to one category is not very descriptive and not very useful.

CNN: How do you feel about the term "smooth jazz"?

Sanborn: As opposed to lumpy jazz? I don't like the connotation, because it always strikes me as being like blood without plasma. It's like everything that you leave out. It's not what you include. Jazz music should be inclusive. Smooth jazz to me rules out a certain kind of drama and a certain tension that I think all music needs. Especially jazz music, since improvising is one of the cornerstones of what jazz is. And when you smooth it out, you take all the drama out of it.

Music is important to me. It really gave me my life. Not just a way to make money ... but it gave me my life. And it's hard for me to think about it as wallpaper. And that to me is what smooth jazz represents. There's no easy answer to that question. I can give you a longer answer ....


CNN: No please don't ...

Sanborn: (laughs) Stop him!

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