The first collaboration between saxophonist David Sanborn and keyboardist Bob James, two of the giants of smooth modern jazz, was the 1986 album, Double Vision. Since it was a platinum-selling Grammy award winner, it is something of a surprise that it has taken the pair over a quarter of a century to put together a follow-up disc. When you’ve produced an album that is successful both commercially and critically, a sequel would be a no-brainer. What took Sanborn and James so long to see the light, I can’t say; what I can do is give thanks they finally came to their senses. So now comes Quartette Humaine, and as the saying goes, better late than never.
In a YouTube video discussing the making of this new album, James and Sanborn point out that they are not trying to repeat the past. They are looking to show their fans something new, to extend themselves beyond the pop and R&B aesthetic that has characterized their work as individual performers over the years. What they have done is put together an inspired acoustic set of straight-ahead jazz featuring melodic improvisation that maintains the smooth elegance that defines them as musicians.
In a publicity release for the album, Sanborn says: “I wanted more than anything to play music that’s challenging and fun, outside the style we’ve been associated with.” “We felt it’s far more exciting and adventurous to move forward,” James adds. “Times have changed. The music business has changed. We have changed.” And changed, they have—perhaps not as radically as their comments might suggest, but radical enough for some.
The album, although recorded shortly after the death of Dave Brubeck, had already been conceived as a kind of tribute to the pianist and his work with Paul Desmond even before his demise. But the news gave the idea even greater immediacy. It was not so much that they wanted to imitate Brubeck and Desmond. What they were looking for was something much more subtle. James pointed to Brubeck’s ability to challenge the audience, to his sense of adventure: “Just when you thought you knew where you were going, they’d go somewhere different.”
Of Quartette Humaine’s nine songs, seven—four by James, three by Sanborn—are original compositions. The two cover tunes, both arranged by James, are the standard “My Old Flame” (perhaps best remembered today from its Spike Jones send up but here, it gets a bluesy reading) and Alice Soyer’s “Geste Humain.”
The album opens with James’ “You Better Not Go to College,” and one has to wonder if this is some sort of back-handed reference to the famous Brubeck album Jazz Goes to College. The Latin rhythms of the Soyer piece follow, and Sanborn manages some inventive solo work to close the piece.
Sanborn’s exotic “Sofia,” the first of two lovely ballads played with passion (“Genevieve” is the other), follows. “Another Time, Another Place” is the third Sanborn original and it provides the best opportunity on the set for the quartet’s drummer, Steve Gadd, to show his stuff.
Although the drummer’s work on James’ “Follow Me” is just as compelling. “Montezuma” and the album’s closing number “Deep In the Weeds” are Latin numbers. Javier Diaz joins the quartet on percussion for the latter. Uncharacteristically, “Montezuma” opens with a bass statement from James Genus before Sanborn comes in and does some of his most impressive solo work. Indeed, everyone gets into the action with gusto on the tune, one of the album’s many highlights.
If you like mainstream jazz played with style and creativity, Quartette Humaine is an album you’ll want to hear. James and Sanborn may not be Brubeck and Desmond when it comes to innovative ideas, but who is? They know what they’re doing; they manage to stretch themselves while staying true to themselves. If there is a problem with the album, it is that we had to wait over 25 years for it.