Bob James & David Sanborn – Quartette Humaine – Tappan Zee/Okeh [Distr. by Sony] 88765 48471 2, 55:28 [5/21/13] ****1/2:
(Bob James – piano, arranger, co-producer; David Sanborn – alto, soprano and sopranino saxophone, co-producer; Steve Gadd – drums; James Genus – bass; Javier Díaz – percussion (track 9))
Evidently you can go home again. Or recreate magic. Twenty seven years ago, keyboardist Bob James and saxophonist David Sanborn struck gold and won a Grammy award with their successful 1986 collaboration Double Vision. It took an extensive interval, but James and Sanborn decided to get together again: the result is the all-acoustic, nearly hour-long album, Quartette Humaine, issued as a digital download, as a compact disc, and on vinyl. This review refers to the CD. Double Vision was a pop-jazz crossover hit which was a product of its time and the artists’ pop-tinted inclinations. Quartette Humaine finds Sanborn (on alto, soprano and sopranino saxes), James (on a beautiful-sounding nine-foot grand piano), bassist James Genus (who has teamed up with James on his other acoustic projects), and drummer Steve Gadd (who also participated on the Double Vision sessions) performing conventional jazz outside of the style long-time listeners may expect from either Sanborn or James. This is approachable, straightforward jazz akin to Michael Brecker, Joshua Redman or older stalwarts like Dave Brubeck.
In fact, Quartette Humaine supposedly pays tribute to Brubeck and his quartet with Paul Desmond. While there are some similarities (bass, drums, sax, piano; memorable melodies; swinging stylishness), no Brubeck or Desmond tunes are on the set list; the band does not replicate Brubeck’s sound; and Sanborn’s soulful tone is nowhere near the elegant “dry martini” timbre which Desmond fashioned. However, anyone who enjoys what Brubeck and likeminded artists have done will appreciate the nine tracks here (four by James, three by Sanborn, and two James-arranged covers). The performances have a deliberate, live-in-the-studio quality which emphasizes group interplay and emotional and/or physical aspects, rather than a polished production crafted for smooth jazz airplay. The foursome opens with James’ relaxed “You Better Not Go to College.” The title may be a nod to Brubeck’s university tours and related records. Gadd furnishes a nimble rhythm (his deft usage of brushes is a highlight here and throughout the rest of the material); and James and Sanborn contribute delightful solos and engaging interaction. James’ upbeat, urban-flavored “Follow Me” is another standout, where Gadd grooves solidly, while James adds leaping single note lines which lope atop Gadd’s percussive configurations; and Sanborn soars with assurance, showing some of the facets of early influences such as Hank Crawford. “Montezuma” has a modern sway; full of post-bop swagger and another showcase for Sanborn’s sax. James’ final work, the earthy “Deep in the Weeds,” digs into Southern soul terrain: Sanborn echoes David “Fathead” Newman (another of Sanborn’s youthful icons), while Genus and Gadd pocket the groove low and wide. And who is that guy occasionally grunting and making almost inaudible comments in the background? Fun stuff.
Sanborn displays his talent for late-night balladry on the softly sultry “Sofia,” where James’ temperate single notes balance with Gadd’s cymbals and brushes, while Sanborn’s every note casts a pinpoint light on the poignant feeling of being in (or newly out) of love. Genus puts down bass lines with genteel effectiveness, tender and supportive. Another refined Sanborn ballad is “Genevieve,” seemingly another gift to a woman: this is an affectionate outing where cymbals, brushes, lightly-touched piano and evocative bass all create a caressing mood. Sanborn also maintains a percolating sense on the lingering “Another Time, Another Place,” which has a nostalgic taste, like the bittersweet memory of first romance. Sanborn’s lyrical but tart sax rises above Gadd’s martial percussion, while James’ subtle keyboard flourishes demonstrate his flair for responsive and sensitive alertness.
The two covers fit in well. The quartet instills French singer/songwriter Alice Soyer’s “Geste Humain” with a dappled, elegiac allure: slightly more whispered than Soyer’s version, with Gadd’s cymbals and ticking percussive ripples synchronizing the atmospheric arrangement, while Sanborn’s soprano glides high. The standard “My Old Flame” (done by scores of musicians, from Miles Davis to Spike Jones) gets a similar treatment, with Sanborn seducing with his mellifluous sax. Quartette Humaine is a great listening experience: the bass, drums, sax and piano were closely recorded and engineer Ken Freeman (Fourplay, Brad Mehldau, Kirk Whalum, many more) brings out the perceptive nuances of each instrument while upholding the all-important groove inherent in several tracks. In an online promo video, Sanborn explains how he felt during the session, “[famous producer] Tommy LiPuma always used to say, ‘I know the music is grooving if my ass starts to shake.’ And my ass was shaking.” Let’s hope Sanborn and James renew their partnership a third time sooner rather than later, so we don’t have to wait too long to hear Sanborn talk about shaking his backside.
TrackList: You Better not Go to College; Geste Humain; Sofia; Follow Me; My Old Flame; Another Time, Another Place; Montezuma; Genevieve; Deep in the Woods.