The alto saxophonist, now 57, boasts a warm, humming timbre, but there's a hint of tartness that creates a welcome tension and prevents the gushy melodrama that afflicts so many pop horn players. Moreover, Sanborn understands that pauses are as important as notes in shaping a line, and his restraint contrasts with the busy overplaying that marks today's pop-instrumental field.
The trick is to keep the variations frequent enough to prevent monotony but small enough to keep the hook and the groove intact. Sanborn does this as well as anyone. His saxophone seems to exult in melody; it will eagerly leap into a phrase and then hold out a climactic note, as if reluctant to let go of something that feels so good. His variations on a theme are aimed more at creating new melodies than new harmonies.
Just listen to how he attacks the two-bar hook of "Tequila." After planting it firmly in our brains, he finds new ending notes for each measure; then he drops half a bar by an octave; then he substitutes a new melodic detour for the first bar, retaining the second; then he inverts that approach. He keeps twisting the phrase into new melodic shapes, but he never obscures the original motif and he never loses the beat.
For Sanborn is a very rhythmic player, toughening his tone to mark the accents in a phrase and using pauses as punctuation. Even though he's the leader, he often sounds as if he's part of the album's all-star rhythm section of guitarist Russell Malone, vibist Mike Mainieri, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Steve Gadd. These jazz musicians add secondary beats to make the bottom more interesting, but like good pop musicians they never leave the primary beat implied; it's always stated quite explicitly and quite crisply.