Bob James and David Sanborn – Quartette Humaine (2013)

Apart, and most certainly together, Bob James and David Sanborn have most often been associated with a sound more easy-going and palatable than necessarily challenging. Not here.

Quartette Humaine, imagined as a tribute to Dave Brubeck’s time-shifting collaborations with Paul Desmond and ultimately recorded a week after Brubeck’s passing, showcases two underrated jazz artists reasserting something that maybe we all should have known all along: James and Sanborn can swing like mad.

Last seen together collecting a Grammy for 1986′s funky-smooth Double Vision, both men usually alternate within their respective careers between typically trite easy listening and sometimes cliched R&B. They’ve scarcely been associated with anything so layered and complex as this new album, due from OKeh on May 21, 2013. An all-acoustic affair, James and Sanborn are joined by drummer Steve Gadd and bassist James Genus on seven new songs — four from James, three from Sanborn — as well as two covers that are reborn through James’ new arrangements, “Geste Humain” and “My Old Flame.”

James, of course, has strayed less often from the instrumental pop that initially made him a star, even touring more recently with a reconstituted version of Fourplay. With Sanborn, however, committed fans might have seen this coming, after his more recent groove-focused forays into the music of David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford.

When the duo reunited on stage, during a midnight jam after the Tokyo Jazz Festival, the idea of a reunion was hatched — but with a twist. Quartette Humaine would be recorded like a live album, with a smoking hot rhythm section.

The results make the case, definitively, for Sanborn as one of his generation’s most underrated alto players — if only because he’s so often used that gift in the service of mainstream piffle — and for James as a quietly assertive straight-ahead jazz voice in his own right. From the opening “You Better Not Go to College,” a smoky exploration, to the diaphanous “Sofia,” best remembered from James’ 2004 Gil Goldstein-arranged Closer,; from “Follow Me,” with its mathematical propulsion to the undulating revelations of “Genevieve,” a tune written for James’ granddaughter, Quartette Humaine surprises and delights at a dizzying pace.

Put bluntly: Don’t go in expecting something so easily digestible as their initial collaboration. Nearly three decades later, Bob James and David Sanborn have a brand-new vision, shared and single-mindedly swinging.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.