On one episode, Leonard Cohen performed a haunting rendition of "Who by Fire" while backed by jazz legend Sonny Rollins. A week later, it was Lou Reed, Gladys Knight and a young Harry Connick Jr. all sharing a stage. And how about the time a network television program actually put the Pixies, Al Green and Sun Ra in the same airspace? This was Sunday Night, aka Night Music — the short-lived but increasingly legendary NBC show hosted and largely conceived by veteran saxophonist David Sanborn.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Sunday Night is not scheduled for a snazzy DVD box set release, nor is NBC planning any retrospectives. Sanborn, however, is back on tour this summer and very much in a nostalgic frame of mind. His new album, Quartette Humaine, marks his first collaboration with keyboardist Bob James since the duo's platinum-selling, Grammy-winning 1986 record Double Vision. It was that same record, it so happens, that likely inspired New York TV producer David Saltz to approach Sanborn about heading up a new "late-night music show" back in 1988.
"We kicked around a lot of ideas," Sanborn recalls. "For my part, I was always very fond of a TV special that CBS had aired in the '50s [1957's The Sound of Jazz], where they had all the famous jazz musicians of the time in a very informal environment — kind of sitting around in a jam-session situation. You could see the cameras moving around behind them as they were interacting, and it always struck me that it felt like you were getting a very intimate look into what these people were really like. They were performing, but they were more than performing. So I said, 'Why don't we try to take that idea of musicians playing together in a very loose environment and see where that takes us?' "
From there, the concept was pitched to famed Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who agreed to back the project.
"The idea," Sanborn says, "was to get musicians from different genres on the show, have them perform something individually — preferably something more obscure or unexpected rather than their latest hit — and then have a moment toward the end where everyone would kind of get together and do something collectively. That was where the whole thing started."
After Michaels roped in Michelob as an official sponsor (thus the eventual name change to Michelob Presents Night Music), Sanborn and his cohorts had free rein to put their unique vision of the show together — utilizing the additional insider connections of record producer Joe Boyd, SNL music supervisor Hal Willner and Sanborn's co-host (and future BBC presenter extraordinaire), Jools Holland.
"We'd go down our wish list of musicians and try to put together what we thought would be an interesting show — an interesting mix of people," Sanborn says. "And for the most part, everybody we asked said yes. I think some of it had to do with the fact that Lorne Michaels had and has a great amount of prestige in the television business. That was a tremendous draw. But overall, we just had an appealing format, a great house band and this very credible approach for making interesting music on television."
The booking combinations were unlike anything in television history, and Sanborn got to jam with all of them. Pere Ubu collided with Philip Glass, Sonic Youth crossed paths with the Indigo Girls, and an aging Miles Davis met an up-and-coming Red Hot Chili Peppers. For Sanborn, though, no episode produced stranger results than the night the notorious avant-garde outfit The Residents — dressed as giant eyeballs — backed the soft-serve country stylings of Conway Twitty.
"That was a pretty interesting moment [laughs]," says Sanborn. "The guy from Michelob actually came up to us afterward and said, 'What was that?!' But I must say that everybody was really game to try new things. I think that's indicative of the kind of spirit that most musicians have. Most musicians are really eager to experiment and learn and step out of their respective areas and take a chance every once in a while. The fact that they were able to do that in the context of our show was just great."
Since Night Music's untimely demise in 1990 (only 44 episodes were made), Sanborn has carried on with his own career, solidifying his status as one of the most commercially successful saxophonists of all time. On Quartette Humaine, he and Bob James admirably skip the temptation to make a sequel to Double Vision, instead focusing on a live, organic sound more reflective of "where we are now as musicians." When it comes to looking back at the '80s, however, Sanborn certainly doesn't mind a reminder of those Sunday nights gone by.
"It's very gratifying to have people come up to me — a lot of musicians, in particular — and say how meaningful that show was for them," Sanborn says. "I think having that legacy and sense of accomplishment is tremendous, and I'm really grateful that I had a chance to be a part of that."
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