Review: Scofield/Sanborn, Gateshead

Fred Grand at Sage Gateshead sees John Scofield, Jon Cleary and the saxophonist who "at some point in their lives almost everybody on the planet who owns a radio will have heard"

Co-programmed by Sage Gateshead and Serious, Gateshead International Jazz Festival’s appeal seems to grow with each successive year. It's rarely short of big-name artists and never afraid to reach out to a cross-over audience. The enticing opening night double-bill (10 April) of John Scofield and David Sanborn made for a perfect case in point. Dyed-in-the-wool purists would almost certainly have baulked at much of the evening’s content, yet in each of their separate ways both sets drew me closer to the roots of jazz than I might have first imagined.

Playing to his strengths as an advanced practitioner in the blues, Scofield came to Gateshead with a new duo project featuring singer/pianist Jon Cleary (last seen here in 2012 in an electrifying set with Dr. John). Although he's steeped in the vibrant traditions of the Crescent City, it almost comes as a disappointment to be reminded that Cleary hails not from New Orleans but from Cranbrook in Kent. He struck up a musical partnership with Scofield in 2008 on the guitarist’s gospel and R&B infused album Piety Street.

Their 55-minute set unapologetically leaned on Deep South traditions. Each sepia-tinged selection featured Cleary’s soulful voice, and stripped of a rhythm section the music gave a real sense that we were eavesdropping on an intimate parlour session. It took a couple of numbers before they really hit their stride, and I couldn’t help but notice that since he switched to Telecaster Scofield has had a somewhat thinner sound. At times he overplayed too, his angular trajectories jarring with the simplicity, purity and elegance of these classic forms.

But everything came magnificently together on Cooley and Davenport’s Fever, and his smouldering intro to Walk With Me was vintage Sco. Cleary’s intricate piano solo on the latter piece was quite possibly the most satisfying moment of the set, but whenever Scofield kept it relatively simple, as he did on Sam Cooke’s Soothe Me, he made a bigger impact and the music seemed to have greater integrity. 


IT HAD been fascinating to hear Scofield negotiate his way back to his roots, but next up was a man who in a career spanning five decades has rarely strayed far from his. Now in his 70th year, the ever youthful David Sanborn has a plaintive, blues-drenched alto-saxophone wail that has graced countless sessions. At some point in their lives almost everybody on the planet who owns a radio will have heard him play. The Florida-born saxophonist has worked with a bewildering array of artists from the Rolling Stones to James Brown, Gil Evans, Albert King and David Bowie. He will perhaps be forever blamed for spawning the "smooth jazz" mutation, but whether or not Sanborn’s over-refined brand of soulful jazz-funk made this largely unwanted by-product an inevitability is a matter still up for debate.

Opening with the laid back soul-jazz of Comin’ Home Baby, he laid bare his entire range in 10 scintillating minutes. Starting low, his slithering bluesy chromaticism ascended through the registers, and as the band ramped up the energy his tone thinned almost to breaking point in the shrill and rarified altitudes. Originally a student of JR Monterose, Julius Hemphill and Roscoe Mitchell (not first off Hank Crawford? - Ed), he retains much of the timbral plasticity of the avant-garde, but I think it’s now entirely fair to say that his music rarely has room for unplanned surprises. With Sanborn you know exactly what you’re going to get, and as the set progressed it also became clear just how far Sanborn relies on gifted collaborators to carry his music that little bit further.

Guitarist Nick Moroch, a proud endorser of Paul Reed Smith’s exquisite instruments and like Sanborn a noted session player, really thrived in this post-fusion adventure playground. Along with keyboard player Ricky Peterson Moroch was an impressive foil and at one point Sanborn remarked “I could just go home and let you listen to these guys play!" There was at least a small grain of truth to the quip, yet many of the evening’s highlights were pure Sanborn.

Ordinary People, a haunting ballad of alienation taken from the new album, and the tender Sofia (written for his wife), were both understated triumphs and confirmed his great talents as a heart-on-the-sleeve emoter. One of Sanborn’s most frequent musical partners over the years has been Marcus Miller, and together they’ve racked up an impressive tally of Grammys. The new album (Time And The River - 6 April release on Okeh) is another slick Miller production and marks a real return to form, but for the most part the set-list was drawn from earlier in Sanborn’s career.

Miller’s Maputo and Camel Island received well-deserved airings, Peterson really nailing their slightly faux exoticism with everything from smoking B3 notes to soothing marimba tones right at his fingertips. A display of virtuoso thumb-slapping from bassist Andre Berry was a chip off Miller’s block, and as the audience rose at the end of this 90-minute set an encore seemed obligatory. Flirting with the "smooth" on Michael Sembello’s rather saccharine ballad The Dream, when it came it felt like a slightly anti-climactic denouement.

Taken as a whole Sanborn’s slick and consummately professional show left a strong impression, a contrasting but near perfect complement to Scofield and Cleary’s rather earthier shades of blue.

All pix by John Watson

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