Few sounds from an alto saxophone are more distinctive than the music of David Sanborn. Once heard, it's never mistaken for anyone else's music.
Sanborn's playing is lyrical and sweet but meaty enough to summon scores of varying jazz and soul inspirations. It's animated in a way that suggests gospel, yet his playing thrives on improvisation and instinct. And did we mention flexible?
During a recording and performance career that spans nearly four decades, he has given his utterly original musical touch to songs by David Bowie, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Little Feat, Albert King, Roger Waters, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and scores of other giants.
And that goes without mentioning a Grammy-winning solo career that has seen Sanborn's music readily accepted by jazz, R&B and pop audiences.
What's the key to the music of such an esteemed instrumentalist? Sound. The thing his fans and contemporaries still flock to is that high, soulful alto sax wail.
"I've been fortunate in the respect that people call on me to just do what I do," said Sanborn, who performs Saturday at the Singletary Center for the Arts for one of the final concerts of the Alltech Fortnight Festival. "I've never had to fit into a mold or anything."
It is perhaps ironic that Sanborn, 65, is just now presenting himself on recordings in a way that he most accurately hears himself. His last two albums — 2008's Here and Gone and 2010's Only Everything — openly embrace the vintage soul inspirations that have cultivated his signature sax sound: Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman, the star sax team that distinguished Ray Charles' most innovative soul recordings of the '50s and '60s.
"Regardless of all musical situations I've found myself in, I think I've essentially played the same," Sanborn said. "I've never changed radically with whatever circumstance I was involved in. So I thought it was time to just kind of put myself in the context of how I have always heard myself and at the same time, pay tribute to some of my musical heroes.
"Early on in my career, I was always trying to emulate them — especially Hank. He has such an emotionally direct sound in his approach to playing. He was also a fantastic ballad player. Most musicians will tell you one of the hardest things to do in music is play a ballad because you're just out there playing the melody and kind of baring your soul. Hank instilled in me early the beauty of doing that."
Sanborn presents the Crawford/ Newman influences in especially succinct form on Only Everything. The album's core band is a trio: sax, B3 organ and drums. That will be the trim instrumental format that Sanborn will perform in Saturday.
"I've been a big fan of the B3 since my early days of playing," Sanborn said. "A lot of the music I was really moved by when I started out was made by what they called organ trios of organ, drums and guitar or organ, drums and saxophone. There was always something really warm and kind of enveloping about that music. It's a very rich, full sound. I just love the way the bass sounds are played by pedals and the left hand. It's almost like reggae music in the sense you feel it as much as you hear it."
Sanborn isn't bringing just any organ group to the Singletary. His trio will feature Joey DeFrancesco, largely considered one of the most popular and innovative contemporary voices on the B3. DeFrancesco is generously featured on Only Everything. Philadelphia drummer Byron Landham will round out Sanborn's trio.
"Joey is just an amazing musician. He's got such a grasp of so many musical idioms. The guy is a force of nature, really. Funny thing is, he will be playing stuff with his right hand that will you will be completely astounded by. At the same time, there's this incredible groove going on in the bass that's also him. That kind of stuff really challenges me. But it also makes me feel very comfortable as a player."
What's next for Sanborn? Some slight deceleration, he hopes. At 65, he looks considerably younger, but Sanborn takes on a touring schedule that keeps him on the road 200 days a year. He is looking for a lighter itinerary that will allow more time in New York to spend with his family, especially granddaughter Genevieve.
"I see the light at the end of the tunnel for me," Sanborn said. "That light is the light of my home."