JAZZ / Knee trembler: Phil Johnson on David Sanborn at the Town and Country, London NW5

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN THE trading estate of rock venues, the Town and Country is only a medium-sized industrial unit, but for an all-instrumental act it's still a very big space to fill. That saxophonist Sanborn and his band filled it two nights in a row was testimony to the pulling power of one of jazz-funk's greatest stars. Getting the customers through the door was only half the problem, though; keeping them entertained was always going to be more difficult for a performer whose main concession to visual dynamics is occasionally bending at the knees.

The answer, it seemed, lay in the calculated moves of a ferociously capable backing band. While Sanborn was actually playing, the stage picture was as static as a tableau; when he finished his solo everything got busy: the drummer, Sonny Emory, juggled and twirled his drumsticks like a majorette; percussionist Don Alias acted as an all-purpose cheer-leader and guitarist Pete Brown roamed across the stage rifling off blues salvoes from the hip with the abandon of an energised Keith Richards.

However, although technically excellent, in the temporary but frequent absences of Sanborn the band threatened to start playing a kind of funk-by-numbers. The bass slapped, the Hammond organ swelled, the guitar stuttered and moaned; but without the leader's sax to join the dots into a convincing picture, it was all a little like marking time.

When Sanborn re-emerged, you could almost feel the temperature in the room rise. His great gift is his tone - so rough at the edges that it sounds sand-blasted. He plays with a lot of vibrato and specialises in high, wailing notes where the instrument seems to cry with emotion. Occasionally, he blows so hard on the reed that the note splits into a harmonic, creating the thick, funky chorus effect that is his signature. On old favourites from his latest album, Upfront, such as King Curtis's beautiful 'Soul Serenade' or the rousing encore of Joe Cuba's 'Bang Bang', Sanborn sounded wonderful. On the latter the performance suddenly caught fire: Sanborn doubled the time and unleashed a mighty solo as the keyboard played Cuban-style triplets up and down the scale.

Without a well-known tune to tamper with, Sanborn was less impressive. Despite the exertions of Brown on guitar and Ricky Peterson on keyboards, he didn't have a harmony instrument to play off in the conventional jazz manner. When he was playing, he was great but his solos were frustratingly self-contained, with little sense of real interaction with the rest of the band. It was very much like listening to the record, but with even less to look at.