Pharoah Sanders Remembered

The more that you listen to Pharoah Sanders’ entire output, the more you realize that he was that rare natural musician who simply pulled what he was playing out of the wind.

by Marshall Bowden

Pharoah Sanders was the heir apparent of John Coltrane’s move, sparked by spiritual concerns, toward playing free jazz with an emphasis on the outer edges of the tenor saxophone’s voice, with a great deal of attendant overblowing and use of harmonics. But he also possessed a warm, deep tenor tone that made the link with jazz music’s past.

The black free jazz community in the second half of the sixties and going into the seventies, was heavily immersed in both Pan African spirituality and a search for the roots of Black classical music. Both of these influences had a strong spiritual element, which made them natural heirs to Coltrane’s deeply spiritual recordings, A Love Supreme and Ascension. The very idea of free jazz in the manner heard on Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz or Don Cherry’s Where Is Brooklyn? or Coltrane’s Ascension, grows from classic New Orleans jazz, based on group improvisation around chordal structure and the building of contrapuntal lines. In free jazz, there is no real chordal structure, but there certainly is counterpoint. 

The squawks and squonks that are played on a variety of instruments, but which seem particularly well suited to the saxophone, convey a vocal quality, a chanting or wailing or grieving or bellowing. Sanders and Archie Shepp were contemporaries who carried the torch for free jazz tenor players, and both were perfectly capable of blistering the walls with their sonic intensity, an intensity that Coltrane worked hard to match on Ascension. It’s interesting to see Sanders and Shepp’s development in the years following Coltrane’s death. Both continued to play free jazz and emphasize Black American political and spiritual experience in their music, but Sanders moved into the direction of soul while Shepp went a bit funkier with tracks like “Attica Blues.”

Sanders joined Coltrane’s quartet and played on several sessions besides Ascension, including the dual-tenor salvo of Meditations and the posthumous releases Stellar Regions and Om. By this time Coltrane’s group included his wife Alice on piano, and Sanders continued to work extensively with Alice Coltrane after John’s death, playing on such classic records as A Monastic TrioPtah the El Daoud, and Journey in Satchidananda. But Sanders’ playing on these recordings as well as his own Impulse records, released and recorded during roughly the same years, is markedly different than the direction he and John Coltrane were pursuing together. It’s not subdued, but there is a wider range of both volume and overall saturation of sound. He seems to return often to A Love Supreme as the template, but his musical direction is clearly his own. 

Sanders’ first Impulse session as a leader, Tauhid, was recorded in 1966, the same year that Ascension was released. But Sanders’ approach here could not be more different. Sanders often lays in wait through the development of a piece by a rhythm section that includes Henry Grimes, Nat Bettis, Roger Blank, Dave Burrell, and Sonny Sharrock before entering, not on his trademark tenor, but on flute instead. The album leadoff track,”Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt” is a stunning landscape that flows from section to section, offering a different vision of how free jazz could be played.

On his next record, Karma, Sanders started long musical relationships with Lonnie Smith and vocalist Leon Thomas, and the results are amazing. While the pieces he records for his next few records are generally long and meditative, he uses ostinato figures, not just in the bass and keyboard, but also the front line instruments to create a mantra of sorts that helps focus the listener’s attention so that she can more readily absorb the soloists’ playing. Sometimes this mantra takes the form of a chant as on the first track, “The Creator Has a Master Plan” with Thomas intoning the words following a long instrumental opening. Pharoah gets to some free style blowing much later in the piece, but these sections are much easier for listeners to assimilate, tempered as they are by the completely different vibe that surrounds them. 

In 1970 Sanders hit a new stride with Thembi, a record of shorter tracks recorded with two different groups of musicians and on which he played a variety of woodwind instruments, many of African origin. The record is bright and offers the listener both energy and meditative aspects. For example, the opening track, Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Astral Traveling,” creates a shimmering surface from Liston’s Fender Rhodes playing with suitcase vibrato and sustain pedal effects driven by some handheld percussion and topped with Sanders’ gentle soprano sax. It’s followed by one of the album’s most full-throated free jazz scream rants, “Red, Black & Green.” Of course, it’s a revolutionary number, the colors referring to those of the Pan African flag designed by Marcus Garvey. 

Thembi really puts the lie to the idea that Pharoah Sanders was just a free jazz player, and the more that you listen the man’s entire output, the more you realize that he was that rare natural musician who simply pulled what he was playing out of the wind. Sometimes that music was loud, intense, and chaotic, but just as often it was not. Subsequent Impulse albums found him exploring island and African musics (“High Life” from Wisdom In Music) as well as Indian and other South Asian music (“Wisdom In Music”). 

After the Impulse years Sanders had a tough time with record labels through the eighties. But in 1996 Sanders worked with producer Bill Laswell on Message From Home, a record that demonstrated the artist’s commitment to his message while placing him in a modern musical environment. With the exception of Laswell’s beats and some effects the music is, interestingly, not that exotic to the ears of long time Sanders listeners–when the seventies ended he was already focusing on rhythm and bringing influences and sounds from all over the world. But Message From Home is, in a lot of ways, Pharoah Sanders’ Tutu, and it helped revive his career for many listeners.

Some of the stars of the London jazz scene that has flourished since 2017 or so–Shabaka Hutchings, Maisha–owe a clear debt to Sanders. He spent most of the 2000s recording and playing with other groups of musicians who acknowledged his influence on them, including David Murray’s Gwo-Ka Masters and Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio. Regardless of the musical setting, Sanders’ playing always sounds vital, fresh, and timeless.

Listening again to Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders on Promises, effectively Sanders’ last recording. Marveling at how, at 80 years of age, he was able to pull this music from inside of himself and still play within the framework that Sam Shepherd provides. That’s the key, really, to Sanders’ success at keeping his career not only afloat but always moving into new territory: he truly is just playing his inner voice, expressing himself deeply through the horn, which is the goal of any great musician. He remained committed to passing his knowledge and experience on to new generations and he remained a spiritual seeker, working the alchemy of music to turn human experience into divine expression—finding the divine in the human. 

That the music of Pharoah Sanders still has the power to invoke this spirit of awe and wonder in me speaks volumes, not only about the kind of musician Pharoah Sanders was, but about the type of man that he was. 

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