Death of David Sanborn, the inventor of the sax FM

Death of David Sanborn, the inventor of the sax FM
Death of David Sanborn, the inventor of the sax FM

A typical smooth jazz figure of the 80s, the American saxophonist accompanied many pop stars: James Brown, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen… He died on May 12, at the age of 78.

Saxophonist David Sanborn at the Jazz à Juan festival, in Antibes, July 18, 2018.

Saxophonist David Sanborn at the Jazz à Juan festival, in Antibes, July 18, 2018. Photo Lantonin/

By Louis-Julien Nicolaou

Published on May 14, 2024 at 11:25 a.m.

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VSUnknowingly or not, you must have listened to David Sanborn one day. In the 70s and 80s, on the radio, in the supermarket, in a nightclub or at the campsite, as soon as an alto sax solo sounded, it was his. A studio musician, one of those called luxury, Sanborn thus worked to define the FM sax, previously considered harmful by jazz and rock purists, today quite widely rehabilitated. However, its field of action was not limited to this “commercial” framework and ranged from blues to free through fusion. He is therefore a great man who passed away on May 12, at the age of 78, from cancer.

Born in Tampa (Florida) in 1945, David Sanborn began his career as a teenager, with bluesman Albert King, then joined Paul Butterfield in his Blues Band, which allowed him, one morning in August 1969, to test the famous LSD breakfast of the Woodstock festival. Returning to earth, he joined Gil Evans’ orchestra and began to haunt the studios, recording for Stevie Wonder (he participated in Talking Book) and James Brown as for Todd Rundgren and James Taylor. By offering him the introduction of his very cocaine addict Young AmericansDavid Bowie relieves his fans (he himself played the saxophone very badly) and allows him to impose this slightly raspy sound full of calls for shared pleasure which will stick so closely to the 80s.

Pop stars and Grammy Awards

Hearing a Sanborn solo transforms you: instantly, you wear dark glasses and a mullet, you wear oversized linen suits like Don Johnson and, melancholy but dignified, you scan the horizon thinking of this beautiful permed surfer, of barely a glimpse between two waves… The journalist gets lost, not Sanborn, who continues to enrich his address book, from Elton John to Carly Simon, from the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Ian Hunter, Paul Simon, Al Jarreau…

Sanborn was not just an anonymous studio star. If his first solo albums (Talking Off, David Sanborn), very well produced, developed a smooth jazz draped in silk which can still have its seductions, what he recorded from 1980 to 1986 often borders on the unforgivable… but offers him the first places in the top jazz charts, quantity of records of gold and, of course, several Grammy Awards.

However, the musician does not neglect the opportunity to be more ambitious on an artistic level, notably alongside guitarists John Scofield and Mike Stern. In the 1990s, he even achieved a sort of balance between mature jazz and lukewarm soup, as in Another Hand, designed with immense jazz players. Had time proved him right? His unmistakable sax had happily embraced the latest developments in fusion and he, inexhaustible, continued to play with as much desire and power. Alongside Maceo Parker, he will undoubtedly remain one of the great sax players in the history of funk. And, forever, the guy who, for the duration of a solo, will make our dream come true: to be Don Johnson.



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