November 2022

Homage to the Son: Remembering Pharoah Sanders

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


    "Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost."
    —Albert Ayler

Pharoah Sanders died on September 24 of this year. Though his loss is incalculable, the outpouring of tributes, retrospectives, and memories was deeply gratifying to anyone who cares about jazz.

Born Farrell Sanders in 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, his first artistic aspiration was visual art, though he also played clarinet as an accompanist in church.

Sanders picked up the tenor saxophone in high school. After a stint in Oakland, California, he moved to New York City, where he befriended Sun Ra (who also helped the struggling musician materially) in 1961. It was in New York where he began to develop his distinctive style that would have such a powerful impact on contemporary jazz.

1965 saw his first collaboration with John Coltrane on the albums Ascension and Meditations, joining Trane's quintet thereafter. This group also included Coltrane's wife, Alice, with whom Sanders would collaborate fruitfully after John's death.

Though Sanders is rightfully credited with carrying forward and building on Coltrane's legacy, the influence clearly went both ways. Sanders helped open up Coltrane's approach, pushing beyond conventional improvisation into the free-form dissonance that would characterize the so-called free jazz of the 1960s.

Listen, for example, to the Coltrane quintet's version of "My Favorite Things," recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 1967. (1) Note how the piece moves beyond the traditional statement of melody followed by improvisation into a realm of pure sound characterized by frenetic honks and blasts of notes.

Sanders also performed with Coltrane on the newly rediscovered live recording of A Love Supreme, which Trane rarely played in concert. Sanders' presence is most vividly felt in the freely improvised interludes between the four movements. (2)

Following Coltrane's untimely death at age 40 in 1967, Sanders continued to work with John's widow Alice. Like Trane, Sanders desired to use music as a vehicle for spiritual exploration, having a strong interest in ancient Egypt and eastern religions. His collaborations with Alice Coltrane brought out a softer, though no less intense, side of Sanders' performing. Take in the stunning "Journey in Satchidinanda," featuring Alice Coltrane on harp, Cecil McBee's haunting drone on bass, and Indian percussion by Sanders and Majid Shabazz. (3)

At the same time, Sanders embarked on his career as bandleader and collaboration with diverse musicians. "Pharoah's first album, Pharoah's First, was not what he expected. The musicians playing with him were much more straightforward than Sanders, which made the solos played by the other musicians a bit out of place." (4) But on Tahuid, his second album, he began to come into his own. The album contains beautiful ensemble work, including contributions from the great guitarist Sonny Sharrock, Sanders on piccolo as well as tenor, and various percussion not often heard in jazz. Give a listen to "Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt." (5)

Sanders' third album as leader, Karma, was released in 1969. It features a composition that has been most acclaimed by critics and fans alike, "The Creator Has a Master Plan." Co-written by vocalist Leon Thomas, the track matches Sanders' signature style with Thomas' free-jazz vocals, often described as yodeling. (6)

Sanders went on to a long and storied career, inspiring generations of musicians and leaving an indelible mark on American musical history. His final performance, just a few weeks before his death, is so brilliant and moving it would bring tears to the eyes of a statue. Accompanied by his son, Tomoki, and three excellent rhythm section players, Sanders, though frail and having to perform sitting down, still shows flashes of his power and the beauty of his music and spirit. (7)

To fully account for Sanders' achievement in carrying on Coltrane's legacy and creating his own would take an entire volume. Instead, listen to one of his most beautiful and spirit-infused compositions, particularly appropriate for autumn. "Harvest Time," from the album Pharoah (1977). (8)

With the passing of Pharoah Sanders, a great light has gone out of the world. But of course, his music will live on as long as music itself.



(1) https://youtu.be/uFl1aguWIwc

(2) I was unable to find a full-album version of this recording on YouTube, but it is available to purchase and on streaming services.

(3) https://youtu.be/TQtEFdyhgdE

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharoah_Sanders

(5) https://youtu.be/0hLKru4QhdE

(6) https://youtu.be/QZ6lB7FKxi8

(7) https://youtu.be/0k2hHVtGbzA

(8) https://youtu.be/ii63fKLTSuU`


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Greg Luce -Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of five books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA. More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives

©2022 Gregory Luce
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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