It was said that the late trumpeter Miles Davis always played the same, no matter what form of music he was doing, be it neo-bop, jazz-rock or with an orchestra. Only the background changed. The same can be said of saxophonist David Sanborn.
Whether he’s working in the jazz-pop idiom that earned him his popularity or on one of his infrequent forays into legitimate jazz (the 1991 album “Another Hand”), the Sanborn sound is instantly identified with its penetrating tone and soul-inspired firings.
With the release this year of “Pearls,” the big-selling CD that features the alto player backed by symphony orchestra, Sanborn seems to have found the ideal setting for his soulful attack. Though not exactly “Charlie Parker With Strings,” the CD brings a measure of warmth and romance to Sanborn’s style that works to his strengths while obscuring the conformity of his playing.
Recreating music from “Pearls” Friday at the Greek Theatre with a core rhythm section and a 34-piece orchestra, the saxophonist underscored those attractions while unwittingly demonstrating the limitations that so large a group puts on his choice of material. Orchestrated songs from the recent album, mostly standards such as “Willow Weep for Me” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” took well to Sanborn’s R&B; flavoring and cast him in the best light. But the jazz-fusion numbers from his past (such as “As We Speak”) seemed clouded by the addition of strings and brass.
Still, the saxophonist’s sound was characteristically unchanged, filled with bent tones, mid-range cries and repeated flurries that only infrequently came together as a whole. To his credit, Sanborn has enriched his much-copied tone (something more apparent on the album than at this concert), giving it a depth missing from previous years. And his way of developing drama during an improvisation was less predictable than before.
But there was one major oversight. Though Sanborn’s between-tune introductions gave due credit to composers as well as insights into his own career, he failed to mention the man who deserves credit for his current makeover, arranger Johnny Mandel. Mandel’s lush, romantic orchestral framing of the Sanborn sound has added new creative spark to the saxophonist’s career and a tip of the hat was certainly in order.