JAZZ / How soul got stuck in a groove

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The Independent Culture
Q: WHEN can music be terrifically good and really pretty boring at the same time? A: When it's jazz-funk, usually.

Jazz-funk evolved in the 1970s from the sub-genres of jazz-rock, which was what happened when Miles Davis realised that Jimi Hendrix was selling more records than he was and started buying electronic gear, and street-funk, the stripped-down, stretched-out, no-messing version of soul music purveyed by bands like War and the Watts 103rd Street Band. The new hybrid had the virtuosity of one and the groove of the other; and when it added the sweet textures of late-model synthesisers to the squeal of real-life saxophones and the kick of a fatback bass-and-drums team raised on rhythm and blues, it began to answer all kinds of audience requirements.

It also turned itself into a cult, principally in north London, where it provided signature tunes and soundtracks for XR3-driving latter-day soul boys. Suddenly, lots of quite obscure American jazz musicians discovered that, in a small corner of metropolitan England, they'd achieved heroic stature.

David Sanborn is one of them, a youthful-looking 47-year-old alto saxophonist who made his debut with Paul Butterfield's Blues Band in the late Sixties before going on to a lengthy collaboration with the late Gil Evans and, more significantly, years of studio work. He was in demand because he could reproduce the fervent, wide-grained sound and convulsive gospel-inflected phrasing of the kind of Texas tenor saxophonist who played with Ray Charles in the Fifties, transposed to the smaller instrument. Play a 33rpm solo by King Curtis or Fathead Newman at 45rpm, and you get David Sanborn, more or less.

What attracted people like Paul Simon, who hired him to play the solo on '50 Ways to Leave your Lover', was his sheer reliability. You press Sanborn's button, and out comes this infallible funky preaching noise. But that quality is also his limitation: in a recent interview, he freely admitted that he is not really a jazz musician, not a true improviser, but a superior juggler of learnt phrases.

At the Town & Country Club on Thursday, in front of his third consecutive full house of north London worshippers, he and his five-piece band played with style and aplomb and fantastic expertise, but absolutely no sense of spontaneity. While the grooves grooved perfectly, given a kick every so often by the sort of syncopated turnarounds that had jaws dropping, and the ballads rippled and ripened pleasantly, the improvised solos didn't bear a moment's attention. Unfortunately, there were lots of them. So: music for discos and XR3s, neither more nor less than that.

(Photograph omitted)