Opening his second set last Thursday with "Coming Home Baby" seemed a very appropriate choice for David Sanborn. Not only is the tune one of his longtime concert staples, but the Kirkwood High School graduate was in fact back in his hometown, headlining the first full week of shows at the newly expanded and renovated space of Jazz at the Bistro.
Accompanied by a quartet of St. Louis musicians, Sanborn seemed relaxed and relatively low-key as he ventured forth on familiar material like "Maputo" and "Benny," penned for him by, respectively, Bob James and Marcus Miller, as well as the ballad "What Will I Tell My Heart," and "Sofia," from his recent Quartette Humaine album with James.
Though his signature sound has mellowed slightly in recent years, Sanborn's alto still displayed some bite as he spun out his characteristic blues-inflected melodic lines. His approach, much closer to a vocal sound than the pattern-based soloing favored by many contemporary players, may have had its genesis in the blues and funk-based music for which Sanborn is best known, but it also serves the slower, prettier material quite well, as he's able to wring considerable emotion from both a standard like "...Heart" and the original "Sofia," dedicated to his wife.
Though all native to the St. Louis area, the band - Peter Martin on piano and Rhodes, Eric Slaughter on guitar, Chris Thomas on bass, and Montez Coleman on drums - was no mere "local rhythm section," as all have touring credits with major jazz artists. With just one brief rehearsal before beginning the four-night run, the quartet nevertheless provided very sympathetic and capable support for Sanborn, digging in for an extended jam on the opener but also showing appropriate concision when needed.
Martin, whose resume includes work with Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride, and Chris Botti, unsurprisingly got the most space to play, serving as an effective foil for Sanborn on both acoustic and electric keyboards and building thoughtful solos when called upon. Slaughter only got a couple of brief solos, but also acquitted himself well, using a rockish tone that evoked the late Hiram Bullock's work with Sanborn.
Thomas and Coleman mostly concentrated on establishing and protecting the groove, adding just enough variation to keep things building without overwhelming the soloists. Coleman did get a brief solo spot near the end of the set, cleverly punctuating his ideas with space instead of just serving up a rote flurry of fast licks.
With a well-established and highly successful musical persona, at this point in his career Sanborn may not deliver many surprises in terms of format or repertoire, but he's a very likeable performer, his playing remains quite engaging on a moment-to-moment basis, and the fans who turned out clearly found it to be a satisfying show all around.
Regarding the new Bistro, while the exterior looks mostly familiar except for some new signage, there's a brand new lobby area, and the remodeled performance area inside feels considerably more open and spacious than the old one. The new layout of the room, with the stage against the long wall on the east side of the room instead of the short wall at the back, achieves the desired goal of bringing more seats closer to the stage, and also allows for better positioning of the lighting instruments.
As for the decor of the room, when I first saw the drawings made public at the start of the project, I must admit my first thought was "cocktail lounge in a Scandinavian airport." While the actual room doesn't feel anywhere near that stark, as someone who prefers his music venues on the funky side, it would be nice to see some St. Louis jazz-related photos, posters, artwork, or memorabilia on some of the wall areas that aren't covered with material to reflect or absorb sound. Admittedly, this is kind of a nitpick, and something that can be dealt with as finishing touches are put on the facility, but I do hope there's a plan to add some sort of visual homage to local jazz history.
More importantly, the sound, though generally regarded as good at the old Bistro, has been noticeably improved. The design of the room and the purchase and installation of the sound system were done in consultation with Sam Berkow, who performed similar duties for Jazz at Lincoln Center and SFJAZZ's new building, and the results are impressive.
The gear is visually unimposing, with speakers flown above the stage and small subwoofers tucked into the front corners, but does a good job of distributing the sound throughout the space. While everything, including the drums, now runs through the PA (which can get dicey in a room the size of the Bistro) the mix seemed relatively natural, nicely balanced, and not too loud for the room. Slaughter's guitar solos did get a bit hot, at least from where I was sitting, but that's one small fader adjustment. For the most part, things seemed pretty well dialed-in for only the second week of operations.
All in all, the new Bistro seems a fine place in which to play or hear music, and I'd expect that musicians and listeners both will give it very favorable reviews. That said, I'm a bit skeptical of the notion that the mere existence of this new space somehow will transform the entire St. Louis jazz scene for the better. Look for a further examination of that topic in an upcoming commentary...