When selecting a recording that could be used as an explanation of smooth jazz for someone new to the genre there could be no finer choice than ‘Maputo’ written by Marcus Miller and performed by Bob James and David Sanborn on their 1986 project ‘Double Vision’. Not only is ‘Maputo’ an excellent showcase for the smooth jazz genre it is also a great insight into the respective talents of James and Sanborn who, over the three decades it has taken for smooth jazz to establish its own identity, have undoubtedly been among the most significant players.
Indeed, over that time, perhaps only Grover Washington JR. stands with David Sanborn as using the saxophone to significantly influence the evolution of pop, R&B, and crossover jazz. Born on July 30 1945 in Tampa, Florida most of Sanborn's recordings have been in the dance music or R & B vein although, time and time again, he has proved himself as a capable jazz player. Scott Yanow describes Sanborn's greatest contributions to music as his passionate sound, with its crying and squealing high notes, and his emotional interpretations of melodies. Despite countless imitators Sanborn is immediately recognisable within the first two notes of any tune he plays.
While growing up in St. Louis Sanborn played with many Chicago blues greats including Albert King and, despite battling polio in his youth, became a skilled alto saxophonist. After important stints with Paul Butterfield, he played with The Butterfield Blues Band at Woodstock, Gil Evans, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and The Brecker Brothers, Sanborn began recording as a solo artist in the mid-'70s. Over the years he has worked with many pop players but has made his biggest impact leading his own danceable bands and, occasionally, coming up with something out of the ordinary. His eccentric but rewarding ‘Another Hand’, a guest stint with Tim Berne on a 1993 album featuring the compositions of Julius Hemphill, and a set of ballads, ‘Pearls’, on which he is accompanied by a string orchestra arranged by Johnny Mandel have all caught his listeners by surprise.
For a couple years in the early '90s, Sanborn was the host of the syndicated television series Night Music that had a very eclectic line-up of musicians. British readers will relate the show to a similar project, ‘Later’, that appeared on BBC television and was fronted by Jules Holland. Artists as varied as Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, James Taylor and assorted heavy metal players all added to the typical mix that Sanborn sought to concoct. It was typical of Sanborn's wide interest and musical curiosity that the show’s featured artists were often given the unique opportunity to play together.
Sanborn’s collaborator on ‘Maputo’ needs even less an introduction than does Sanborn himself.
During the past thirty years the recordings of Bob James have defined the way in which contemporary jazz has evolved. If James Brown can claim to be the godfather of soul then Bob James has undoubtedly matured into what can honestly be described as the godfather of smooth jazz. Reviewers who have a slightly snobbish view of what jazz should be all about have criticised James for producing music without ‘challenge’ although in doing so they have very much missed the point of Bob James as a smooth jazz, cross over and fusion pioneer.
Very influenced by pop and movie music, James was one of the first to adopt the now common trend of featuring R&B soloists, both vocal and instrumental, on his recordings. Perhaps the most notable Bob James collaborator has been Grover Washington JR. although David Sanborn is also right up there. The edge that these collaborations have brought to his music is something that continues to define him within the genre.
Born in Marshall, MO, on Christmas Day 1939 he recorded a bop trio set for Mercury in 1962 and three years later, with his album for ESP that made use of electronic tapes for effects, was already displaying his tendency to seek out new combinations of sounds. After working with Sarah Vaughan from 1965 to 1968 he became a studio musician, and, by 1973, was arranging and working as a producer for CTI. His solo recording career was given a massive boost when he played keyboards on the 1975 Roberta Flack long player ‘Feel Like Making Love’. The title track became a stateside chart topper and also spent seven weeks on the UK charts where it reached #34. James used the same players from this recording for his own version which was released at the same time as the Flack original and included on his album ‘One’. Both the Roberta Flack smash and his own version were often played back to back on the radio.
Another career defining event for James was his 1983 release ‘The Genie’ which in fact is the soundtrack compilation from the hit TV series ‘Taxi’. The theme from the show, ‘Angela’, became an anthem for James and remains the song that his audience calls for at live gigs.
Both before and after ‘The Genie’ came big-selling recordings for his own Tappan Zee label, Columbia, and Warner Bros., including duet albums with Earl Klugh and David Sanborn. The 1986 ‘Double Vision’ with Sanborn is a great example although his work with Klugh is also of the highest quality. These copper plated partnerships have remained a facet of Bob James recording career. His album ‘Joined at The Hip’ with Kirk Whalum, whom James is credited as ‘discovering’, and the track ‘Mind Games’ with Boney James from his solo album ‘Playin Hooky’ bear testimony to that.
The part currently played by him in the project Fourplay has added a further dimension to his music. Starting out as the quartet of Bob James, Nathan East, Harvey Mason and Lee Ritenour and redefining their shape (and sound) with the replacement of Ritenour by Larry Carlton, Fourplay consistently produce what can be best described as grown up smooth jazz. Indeed grown up smooth jazz is a term that could very easily be applied to the track ‘Maputo’. Although produced twenty years ago it contains many facets of smooth jazz that the up and coming artists of today regularly seek to recreate. It is innovative but above all it still sounds great.
As well as on ‘Double Vision’ the tune can be found in various styles and flavors on the 1991 CD by The Crusaders, ‘Healing The Wounds’ and on Marcus Millers own ‘Live and More’ from 1998. The original reappears on the 1997 compilation ‘Best Of Smooth Jazz’ and on three jazz radio samplers, ‘Smooth Jazz 107.5 The Oasis Volume 4’, ‘WJJZ 106.1 Volume 11’ and ‘WSJT 94.1 Volume 7’. With ‘Maputo’ Bob James is found doing what he does best, collaborating with other musicians to make sophisticated contemporary jazz music.