|Pharoah Sanders. Photo from his website
At the tender age of 25, Pharoah Sanders experienced the greatest honor that jazz had to offer in the 1960s: The great John Coltrane took him into his band and shaped him forever with his concept of a spiritual free jazz. In interviews, however, Sanders honestly did not want to be asked about the old mentor and did not shy away from looking through the journalists’ questionnaires for the irritant word “Coltrane“, only to break the rule himself and tell anecdotes like these: Coltrane was said to have asked him whether he could play an F on the tenor saxophone (which is extremely difficult). “Yes“, Sanders replied, “but only if I lift my left leg while doing it - and I don't want to do that!“ Now the great saxophonist, sound inventor and activist, one of the greatest angry young men of jazz at the time, has died on September 24 at the age of 81
Pharoah Sanders, whose real name was Ferell Sanders, was born October 13, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He moved to New York City in 1961 after playing with rhythm and blues bands. There, he was homeless a few times, but he knew Sun Ra, who found him an apartment and encouraged him to use the stage name “Pharoah“. In 1963, he formed his own band with pianist John Hicks, bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Billy Higgins. The group attracted the attention of John Coltrane. In 1965, Sanders began performing with Coltrane at live shows and in the studio regularly, playing on several of Coltrane’s albums, including Ascension, Meditations, Kulu Sé Mama, Live at the Village Vanguard Again! and many more. Simultaneously, Sanders started recording albums under his own name. In 1966, he signed a contract with Impulse! and released Tauhid in the same year. His most famous album, Karma, followed in 1969. In the 1970s, Sanders continued to produce his own recordings and also continued to work with Alice Coltrane, for example on Journey to Satchidananda.
He experimented with African rhythms on the 1971 album Black Unity and in general he became interested in all kinds of music, including R&B, modal jazz and hard bop. Throughout his life however, he retained the brute stylistic devices of free jazz such as overblowing, primal scream effects, and walls of sound, even when he returned to more conventional forms in the eighties. A perfect example of his wide musical universe is the fact that he traveled to Morocco in 1994 to record the album The Trance of Seven Colors with Gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, which was produced by Bill Laswell, and in the same year also he did a trip hop remix of “The Creator Has A Master Plan“, his signature song from Karma.
Finally, in 2021, together with London electro musician and DJ Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, he had an unexpected late career hit. The meditative, nine-part suite Promises was exactly the kind of music with spiritual depth and emotional spark of hope that a beleaguered humanity needed in the second pandemic year.
Although the great saxophonist has recorded many excellent albums throughout his whole career, his work from the 1960s and 70s is considered to stand out from his rich and varied catalogue. Tauhid (1967, Impulse) with Sonny Sharrock on guitar, Dave Burrell on piano, Henry Grimes on bass, Roger Plank on drums and Nat Bettis on percussion was the blueprint for his most famous albums, which were about to follow, because it established the typical spiritual Sanders sound. Two years later, he released Karma (Impulse), possibly his greatest success, with a monstrous band consisting of Lonnie L. Smith jr. on piano, Julius Watkins on French horn, James Spaulding on flute, William Hart and Frederick Waits on drums, Richard Davis, Reggie Workman and Ron Carter on bass and the fabulous Leon Thomas on vocals and percussion. “The Creator has a Master Plan“ is the mother of all spiritual jazz tracks. In the years to follow, he released more wonderful albums on Impulse like Summon Bukmun Umyun (1970), Jewels of Thought (1970), Thembi (1971), and Black Unity (1972), all worth listening to. A personal favorite of mine is Izipho Zam (Strata-East, 1973), on which he again was joined by long time collaborators such as Leon Thomas (“Prince of Peace“ with him on vocals is my favorite Sanders track), Sonny Sharrock, Lonnie Liston Smith, Nat Bettis and Billy Hart plus Sonny Fortune on alto sax, Howard Johnson on tuba and Cecil McBee and Sirone on bass. Sanders was always at his best when he was backed by a band that had a great groove and expressed a lot of spirituality like on Africa (Timeless, 1987), where John Hicks (piano), Curtis Lundy (bass) and Idris Muhammad (drums) prepared a marvelous sound carpet on which Sanders could soar. “You’ve Got To have Some Freedom“ even works as a dance floor killer. Sanders was also especially great when he worked with musicians from Africa, for example with the aforementioned Maleem Mahmoud Ghania on The Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom, 1994). The music here is also of an outstanding spirituality, however very different from his albums in the late Sixties and early Seventies, it seems more ethereal and otherworldly. Promises with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra (Luaka Bop, 2020), was praised by many critics (including myself), but also criticized as being to kitschy. I liked its drama and comforting spirit a lot, though.
Though Pharoah Sanders has passed on, we will be comforted by the music he gave us all. Not only the jazz community will miss him.
Watch “The Creator Has a Master Plan“ with Pharoah Sanders - tenor sax, William Henderson on piano, Miles Danso on bass and Antoine Banville and drums live in London, 2011: