Bob James and David Sanborn – Barbican, London.

By Mark Youll | 2nd December, 2013 | gig reviews, reviews |

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Long-time fans of pianist Bob James and saxophonist David Sanborn knew what to expect tonight. Even if some had yet to hear the new album, Quartette Humaine - a record pointing to post-bop and Brubeck - they could all rest easy, self-assured that whatever these now-elder session greats rolled out, would remain true to that silky, slick, water-tight style (and sound) they were both largely liable for shaping, just as jazz in New York City was creeping closer to commercial pop around the mid-1970s.

It was a style that soon made it big over here too, for a time enjoying an extended plug thanks to the likes of Radio Invicta, or the loftier Smooth FM, who would often air James' breezy Rhodes standard 'Angela - theme from Taxi', or maybe something from Sanborn's Grammy-hugging LP, Voyeur, alongside other biggies from the Blackbyrds, Breckers or Al Jarreau.

“it was more about these celebrated leaders of jazz-funk raising their game, delivering a slice of something new, without loosening their grip on their big apple.”

Tonight though, whilst happy feeding homesick fans the old classics, was much more than a salute to some seminal records. It was a chance to hear material from the pair’s already-critically praised, stripped-back to acoustic, swing-heavy new disc, and thus, another side to the rousing interplay between these two legendary artists.

As befits a gig that calls for an even balance of subtlety, impeccable in-the-pocket groove playing and (when required) bottomless chops, James and Sanborn’s signing-up of rising double bassist Scott Colley, and veteran drummer Steve Gadd was a no brainer.

And fervent fans on the front-row didn’t have to wait long to hear each member of this dream team to flex their worth, as James’ off-beat samba “Montezuma” kicked open the set, building towards a hipper disco feel that proved a springboard for some jaw-dropping solos from all.

With all whistles and cheer eventually hushed by a brief piano prelude from James, an early ballad in “Geste Humain” retired Colley and Gadd to the lull of soft strumming and scratchy brush-work, allowing James and a typically-skirling Sanborn to rewind and re-frame the infectious melody of this succinct, but seductive piece.

It was during slow-burning ballads like this, and a tender tribute to his wife “Sofia”, that not only brought out Sanborn’s most soulful side, but formed a runway to build on some impassioned solos.

Snug amongst the new tunes, and devoid of any of the creamy synths or programmed percussion that fleshed-out the pair’s last release as leaders together – 1987’s Double Vision -, fresh arrangements of “More Than Friends” and “Maputo” stirred squeals of delight around the hall.

Hearing these old favourites re-imagined by this virtuosic quartet – beside a Brubeck-informed, odd-time swinger like “Follow Me” and the military, blasé beat Gadd steamrolled through the funky “Deep in the Weeds” – more than met the expectations of all the long-time fans. But it was more about these celebrated leaders of jazz-funk raising their game, delivering a slice of something new, without loosening their grip on their big apple.

Mark Youll