Cry of the spirit
SA XOPHONIST PHAROAH SANDERS
Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders, born 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, with the given name Farrell, had carved out his own place in the world of music by the time he was twenty-five. His sound then was raw, wild, and aggressive, his phrasing full of extended cries and caterwauls. Each tone, no matter how long held, was intense and deeply resonant, ringing across octaves, an effect which added a sensory richness to what otherwise might be heard as a scream. Each energetic passage burned bright, yielding a light that revealed the hidden corners of his psyche. The passion of Sanders — who appears Saturday, July 29, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the New Mexico Jazz Festival — came to define Sanders’ sound. That passion has remained in various degrees no matter which direction his music has taken. In a 1995 interview, Sanders explained that he’s not so much a technical player and probably not that much of an intellectual player, both qualities that are attached to the avant-garde from which he emerged. “What I do is express,” he said. “That’s what I do.”
Sanders earned notoriety in 1965 when he began an association with revered saxophonist John Coltrane. Before that, he had worked rhythm and blues gigs in San Francisco and played free jazz in New York with drummer Billy Higgins and trumpeter Don Cherry from saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s band. He recorded an album in 1964 with Sun Ra, the bandleader keyboardist whose Arkestra would later influence Sanders’ own ensembles. The disc earned raves when it was finally released in 1972. The first recording under his own name, also cut in 1964, hits a promissory note. You can sense the saxophonist wanting to cut loose. But he seems hesitant, as if restrained by a rhythm section who are not as liberated from the swing and bebop tradition as he. A flurry of live performances and recordings as a member of the likeminded Coltrane ensemble cut him loose. Poet, critic, and jazz historian A.B. Spellman, who interviews Sanders at the Lensic Saturday afternoon before the saxophonist’s appearance that evening, saw Sanders with the Coltrane group at New York’s Village Gate in 1965. The review he wrote for DownBeat
magazine comes in incredulously descriptive terms: “He went on for minute after minute in a register that I didn’t know the tenor had ... Those special effects that most tenor men use only in moments of high orgiastic excitement are the basic premises of his presentation. His use of overtones, including a cultivated squeak that parallels his line, is constantly startling. He plays way above the upper register; long slurred lines and squeaky monosyllabic staccatos.” Sanders appeared on nearly all of Coltrane’s later-period albums including Kulu Sé Mama, the last studio recording before the saxophonist’s death in 1967. Coltrane explained his admiration of Sanders in the late Nat Hentoff’s liner notes to the saxophonist’s 1965 recording Meditations: “What I like about him is the strength of his playing, the conviction with which he plays. He has will and spirit, and those are the qualities I like most in a man.”
The source of that spirit, as with Coltrane, was probably fed by the racial and social backdrop of the ’60s. But at its heart is spiritual aspiration. This is apparent on Sanders’ own Impulse! recordings — Karma, Jewels of Thought, Thembi — that came after Coltrane’s passing. Speaking about his own spiritual pursuit, Coltrane told Hentoff it didn’t matter which religion a particular listener held because he believed in all religions. Spellman cited Coltrane’s words about his stated artistic goal: “I’d like to point out to people the divine in musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls,” and explained its significance. “Coltrane, after A Love
Supreme, was in a committed search for the sublime,” Spellman recently told Pasatiempo. “The verbal text for [Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme is a Sufic poem that could have been written by the great Jalaluddin Rumi. There’s the ecstatic dervish of [Coltrane’s Impulse recording] Om. Ohnedaruth the Mystic [a religious name given to the saxophonist after his death] wanted a music beyond art, an audience experience beyond enjoyment, a statement beyond mere comprehension. The application of Sufism and other mystic religions and their musical theories and methodologies was not original to Coltrane — people like Josef [Yusef] Lateef and and others had been into it long before. But no one with the stature, the genius, the unrestricted power of John Coltrane had committed so completely to it before. And no saxophonist with the lineage tree of Coltrane had been on the scene since the heroic days of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker.”
The three saxophone leaders Spellman cited pushed the boundaries from inside the forms of melody, harmony, and rhythms found in standard tunes and jazz compositions. Coltrane eventually stepped outside of musical form in an attempt to find purer expression, and that’s where he found Sanders. Both looked to the East for musical forms and spiritual inspiration. “Pharaoh Saunders is prominent on [Coltrane’s] tree,” said Spellman. “[Sanders] is one of the most powerful exponents of the eternal principle that Coltrane expressed: Music can make the world better. To do so, according to the laws of Coltrane and the leaders of the avant garde of the ‘60s, the governing laws of improvisation must be dismantled. Rhythm, pulse, clave, chromaticism, tonality, atonality, modality, chord progressions, or none of the above may be used or discarded as expression demands. Any source may be exploited. Pharaoh Saunders lives in this wide open nation without borders.”
The spiritual message heard in Sanders’ sound is all about possibility and things beyond understanding. “When you hear him, you are privy to a voice whose message your intuition understands but your reason cannot begin to parse,” Spellman said. “It offers varied experiences, from an amniotic warmth to a stormy expanse. It is intentionally defiant of category.”
Yet category, the one Sanders defined and stands in alone, has followed him throughout his career. In 1989, long after he had shown evolving sides of his formerly all-frantic approach when playing with Alice Coltrane (A Monastic Trio) and on his own progressively more thoughtful recordings for the Impulse and Evidence labels, Los Angeles Times critic Don Heckman framed Sanders’ Hollywood appearance in terms of 1960s nostalgia, saying the saxophonist only made “occasional forays (usually undertaken at the close of a piece) around the outer limits of his tenor saxophone’s capabilities to provide far too-brief reminders of the genuinely revolutionary qualities of his earlier playing.” The irony here is that Sanders, like others of the jazz avant-garde, was criticized in the ’60s for making nothing but noise in an attempt to mask inferior technical skills. Twenty-some years later, critics wanted more of his raw, unbridled sound.
Sanders has long since found a more settled place of expression, one that includes droning long tones, sensitive passages, and amazingly resonant crescendos that, yes, sometimes end in his spirited cries. In the 1990s, the saxophonist, now playing soprano as well as tenor, did a pair of albums for the Verve label produced by bassist and genre-masher Bill Laswell that utilized African and Eastern music forms as well as some beat-minded, contemporary production values. Contrast this with Spirits, a 2000 acoustic recording on the Meta label with percussionists Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph that seems a pure expression of rhythmic and spiritual traditions. Maybe most representative of Sanders’ work over the years is “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” an extended number that first appeared on his 1969 Impulse recording
Karma. Sanders has continued to perform the piece in concert over the years. (His 2003 release on the obscure Venus label carries the tune’s name.) The piece is accessible, lush, and promising, containing moments of warm serenity. It changes and it doesn’t. At some point, it contains the cries of a musician on a singular journey.