Cry of the spirit


Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER -

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.

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