It was 1986 when pianist Bob James and saxophonist David Sanborn released their debut collaboration, Double Vision. The two men already had respected solo careers that veered wildly and awesomely, between genres and media, including two big bursts of fame: James wrote the beloved Taxi theme song and Sanborn was the man responsible for the blistering sax solo on David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
But Double Vision’s smooth jazz was a game-changer, going on to become a Grammy Award-winning, platinum-selling behemoth — a formula that even then in the heady, luxury, pure cocaine days of the music industry, executives must have been anxious to replicate.
Hopefully they weren’t holding their breath, because only now, more than 25 years after the fact, have James and Sanborn made their followup. Quartette Humaine, which you can stream below until May 27, finds the pair inspired by the echo of late jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and his creative partnership with saxophonist Paul Desmond. It’s a fitting title for a record that explores friendship, love, wisdom and mortality, all key components of the human experience.
CBC Music spoke with James and Sanborn about Quartette Humaine, Brubeck’s influence, Taxi and David Bowie’s hair — or lack thereof.
In the pop or rock world, if you make a platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning album, that’s a catnip formula for record companies. How come it’s taken so long to get you two back together again?
Bob James: I don’t think either of us exactly know. Our lives went in separate directions, we remained friends and we would bump into each other off and on in the intervening time, but every time we would get together, we’d say the same thing: "We gotta make a followup." For whatever reason, we didn’t and I think it actually reached the point of almost embarrassment so that this last time we got together, we were able to say, c’mon, we gotta do this.
David Sanborn: And also I think if we had followed too closely with another album, after Double Vision, that the pressure and everything would have been so great. I think that’s always a danger. Not many sequels really work with the exception of Godfather 2. When you go into it for the wrong reasons, instead of "I think this is interesting" or "this is a natural thing to do." Certainly, that’s the way we went into Double Vision.
James: That’s true. It just seemed like a unique time in life. We weren’t starting on a collaborative career together. Even at that time we had very different careers, very different ambitions for what we wanted to do with our music and our lives. It was a one-off in the best sense of the word.... We did it and we were like, mission accomplished. Then one thing led to another and whoops, 25 years went by. That’s pretty scary, actually.
Sanborn: Now we can go into the studio and make Double Vision 2.
Pressure’s off guys, go!
James: Now we gotta make Quartette Humaine 2. I don’t have 25 years to wait to make that.
Sanborn: That’s the other reality facing Bob and I. We’re getting to the point where we have to do this while we still can.
What you’re talking about right now — do you want to make as much music as you can, seize the opportunity?
Sanborn: Yes, absolutely. It’s not something I think about everyday, but for me, I’ve gotten to a point in my life where the experience of making music is so valuable to me that maybe 25 or 20 years ago, although I always loved it, there was so much else going on, so much business and all the other stuff going on, that it somehow made it hard to focus on what a joy it is to make music ... and I think we’ve made a record that reflects that joy and enthusiasm about the process of making music.
James: This project represents both of us going the farthest we’ve ever gone, purely in making music for its own sake, from what we felt in our hearts and what we wanted to do. Not from any commercial pressure or record company pressure, and not even from the insecure pressure of feeling the need to accomplish something. Dave and I have between the two of us a lot of experience on all levels and I sensed from him a confidence that I’m also feeling myself. I’m just comfortable with what I do and confident it’s going to be good.
You talk about Dave Brubeck as a starting point for this album. Can you tell me a bit about what he meant to you both and how that filtered into Quartette Humaine?
James: We started out knowing that we did not want to repeat Double Vision, and we kept narrowing it down to what we considered to be the most basic jazz instrumentation for what we do and it came to us very quickly that it would be the same instrumentation as the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Neither of us wanted to play their music or sound like that group, but we wanted the spirit of what they represented back in the '50s and '60s. They were an adventurous group, stretching and trying things in all kinds of ways. It was intellectual music in the best sense, and Paul Desmond was a romanticist, so he injected a warm, emotional blanket over the entire sound ... I don’t think my piano playing sounds at all like him and he wasn’t even the pianist I most listened to or admired in that way. I think I admired him more as an entity and certainly as a charismatic and great leader. He remained that way throughout a very long career ... I remember from Double Vision is that both of us made each other sound better.
I’m sure you get tired of hearing this, but you two are also responsible for two of the coolest things of all time. Bob, you wrote the Taxi theme and David, you did that great sax solo on David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
Sanborn: I’m insecure enough to say it’s never enough.
James: We never get tired of hearing that. I get tired of hearing the bad stuff.
Sanborn: No shit.
Dave, when you hear your solo on “Young Americans,” does it give you a thrill still or is that a time in the past and you’re done with it?
Sanborn: I’m glad it affected people in a positive way. It certainly gave me a lot of visibility. It’s funny you should mention that, because somebody sent me just yesterday a link to a live performance we did on The Dick Cavett Show and just looking at everybody and hearing that song again was like, "Wow, hey, that sounded pretty good."
What are the primary differences between working with David Bowie and working with Bob?
Sanborn: Well, they both dress very similarly.
James: He had more hair than I ever did.
Sanborn: Not anymore.
Bob, people still talk about the Taxi theme to this day. I think it’s the smartness of the music: a bit of melancholy and a bit of lightness, it seemed to encapsulate what Taxi was all about. Do you consider it still your own, or does it belong to the show?
James: Hearing you describe it makes me not want to tell you the humbling background of what really happened with that theme.
It’s OK, blow apart my dreams.
James: I’m totally happy with its success. Beyond happy. It’s almost like a cottage industry beyond anything I could have wildly dreamed. It’s the only TV thing I was ever involved with. But it pretty much happened by accident. The producers of the series had my fourth album for CTI in their collection and they were just experimenting, trying to come up with a style or sound for the show, and they happened to play one of those pieces and like the mood of it and they called me and said, "Would you be interested in writing music for the series?" Of course, I was very flattered, but at the time I told them if it’s that kind of style that you like, it might be difficult or impossible to do that with 15-second sound cues I knew were associated with half-hour sitcoms.
So I talked them into the idea of staying very loose and approaching the music more like a recording session for an album. I hadn’t even seen the opening sequence. I did all my music in New York and they were shooting the show in L.A. and I hadn’t seen any of the episodes. I came in with a bunch of stuff, including what I thought might be the best idea for a main theme, because I was envisioning New York City cab drivers and the wild hustle and bustle of New York. So I had this fast, exciting piece and that wasn’t what they were looking for. But on the same session, I had done a more mellow piece that I wondered might be more useful to them as background music in a scene, but we hadn’t identified what that would be and that’s the one that pushed their buttons. The thing that has become the most identifiably successful for me was pretty much an accident.
Sanborn: A happy accident.
James: And I’m so warmly comfortable about it as the thing that people keep asking me to play. It’s not a novelty piece. It’s a romantic, nice, warm, old friend kind of a piece. I still like playing it and I don’t get tired of it. I think of what it would have been like if “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” had been the one I had to live with 30 years and keep playing over and over again [laughs].
Follow Andrea Warner on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner.