David Sanborn, Ronnie Scott's, London <!-- none onestar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Success, they say, has many fathers. For David Sanborn, it's a little different. The much-imitated alto saxophonist may sometimes feel like challenging the paternity of some of his offspring, for he has undoubtedly been a huge influence on the smooth jazz wailers with whom no note goes unornamented and no phrase is not weighed down by the heaviest of emotional baggage.

Sanborn is, and has always been, rather better than that. An A-list session player, perhaps best known to the wider world for guesting on David Bowie's "Young Americans", he was also a stalwart of the Brecker Brothers band, and on top form he can lend more content to the crossover jazz format than any other altoist.

His technique is fabulous, his command of harmonics and the high register flawless, and his rich, chewy tone is as dense as molten caramel - and when cooled down, as instantly brittle, too.

"The room is dry; it doesn't give much back," Sanborn said of Ronnie Scott's, which he reckoned he'd last played in 1968. "It reminds me of dating at high school." That wasn't a bad thing. He and his electro-acoustic backing trio could not rely on the echo-effects they sometimes use, and had to let their music speak for itself. This was tight and controlled, from the swishing, close-miked brushes on the drums during "Smile" to the loping beat of "Comin' Home Baby" in the second set. The backing trio's role was not to surprise or take risks, but to provide a studio-perfect and impeccably laid-out canvas on which Sanborn could blaze his trail.

Sanborn is not one for understatement - not from nowhere did those smooth jazzers get the idea that every hanky should be wrung dry of tears - but he wasn't at his most expansive tonight. This could have been because he'd cut his lip shaving earlier, a dangerous mistake for a horn-player. Still, his short solos delved deeply into the cookie bag, had a good, long rummage, and spat out chunky mid-register phrases and paint-stripping high notes. Sanborn fans will not have been disappointed.

For those not entirely convinced by him, the evening was a good snapshot of what he's doing now. The overall style remains tasteful, high-class 1980s jazz-funk; fair enough, you may say - that was Sanborn's era. It does sound a little dated, though. And when he plays material from his last two albums, on which he looked back to earlier masters of the down-home and dirty sax, like Stanley Turrentine, he sounds restrained and inauthentic, as though he's all too aware that the late and much-lamented Turrentine would simply have done it better.

The truth is that Sanborn is still a world-class alto saxophonist, who has an instantly recognisable sound that can be a glory to hear. But in terms of material and style, he's been coasting for a long time. A new quest would probably be rewarding for him; it would certainly be so for his audience.

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