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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Pharoah Sanders - Thembi (Elemental Music, 2024)

By David Cristol

In addition to its limited-edition archival releases of Cannonball Adderley, Yusef Lateef, Sun Ra, Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, and Chet Baker & Jack Sheldon, the Catalonian Elemental Music label reissues Pharoah Sanders’ album Thembi on 180g vinyl. The gatefold cover reproduces the original art of the 1971 release on Impulse! with a large black and white photo of Sanders in action covering two-thirds of the open panel, plus smaller photos of musicians, a poem by Keorapetse Kgositsile, track titles and complete credits. Also identical to the original edition, the round stickers on both sides of the LP itself. Musically, the album has perhaps more in common with Sanders’ “Tauhid”, (1967) than with “Karma” (1969, both on Impulse! as well) and its lengthy statement The creator has a masterplan, with follow-up sides digging into the same groove, to great effect as on “Black Unity”. Unlike those, “Thembi” is an album of contrasting sounds, colors and moods. It was made in two sessions by a core trio of Sanders (on soprano and tenor saxophones, flutes, bells, koto, fife and percussion), Lonnie Liston Smith (acoustic and electric piano, percussion) and Cecil McBee (bass), joined on side A (recorded November 1970 in Los Angeles) by Michael White (violin), James Jordan (ring cymbals) and Clifford Jarvis (drums) and on side B (committed to tape January 1971 in New York) by Roy Haynes (drums) and a quartet of African drums and percussion players.

Each side has three compositions of moderate length, three by Sanders, one by Smith, one co-credited to Sanders and Smith and one by Cecil McBee. Astral traveling is a seductive opener, with its waves of hyper-vibrating electric piano, its raspy but restrained saxophone playing and its supple and warm bass contributing to the meditative atmosphere. Smith would reprise the tune on his 1973 album, unsurprisingly also titled “Astral Traveling”. Things get wild on Red, Black and Green, multiple gripping saxophone screams superimposed on top of each other in the introduction. The song progresses from that initial cry to less hostile waters while maintaining the superloaded approach to the end: one for the free jazz anthologies. Thembi (Sanders’ South African wife’s name, abbreviated from Nomathemba) is by contrast a miniature, lighter and upbeat version of the extended workouts Pharoah is known for. The association of instruments works wonders, Michael White’s violin a particular highlight. The spiritual quest continues on side B with Love (a freeform bass solo by McBee), that segues into Morning Prayer, starting off with koto and morphing into a magic carpet ride swarming with percussion and the leader’s breathy flute and mighty tenor, and Bailophone Dance , where hard-hitting African drums are joined by several wind instruments in succession from Sanders (tenor, flute, fife), with shouts and bird chirps courtesy Smith and McBee.

Those elements make for a satisfying listen and are a reminder that Sanders (1940-2022) had found a singular path after his association with John Coltrane. Over five decades later, the best manifestations of his visions still stand the test of time. 

N.B. This reissue of Thembi is licensed for Spain and Portugal exclusively.

Available from Jazz Messengers (Lisbon & Spain) and Guerssen (Barcelona)


This review is also appearing on the Portuguese Jazz website, in Portuguese here.


Ernst Grgo Nebhuth said...

Thembi (this edition) will be available at least in Germany as well - not as import but on a regular basis.

David Cristol said...

Thank you for the update, Ernst Grgo Nebhuth. The licensing info was indicated to me by the label.