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Pharoah Sanders

Pharoah Sanders (1940 - 2022). Photo: Oliver Abels / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0, license linked below article

Martin Hall appreciates the musical legacy of the great experimental jazz musician, Pharoah Sanders

Pharoah Sanders, who has died in Los Angeles at the age of 81, had a varied career. While best known for the series of free/spiritual albums he made for Impulse! and for his work in John Coltrane’s final band from 1965-67, he began as a rhythm-and-blues player and ended with an album alongside an electronic-music producer and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Born Farrell Sanders, he adopted ‘Pharoah’ (sometimes ‘Pharaoh’) after meeting Sun Ra, who helped him in his career in the early sixties, often providing him with a bed when he was homeless in New York. From 1965 onwards, he formed part of the nexus of young, avant-garde musicians who gravitated towards Coltrane: Archie Shepp; Rashied Ali; John Tchicai and others. They all played on Coltrane’s Ascension album that year, the moment where Coltrane’s music really breaks free, taking him into the abstract stylings of the final two years of his life. Sanders can be heard on that album overblowing and creating noises that mimicked the human voice, or even bird song, which can be heard to an even greater degree on his second solo album, Tauhid, released in 1967. On ‘Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt’ from that record, Sanders creates otherworldly sounds on the tenor, bringing to mind the wildlife of the Nile, as well as the spiritual searching that would underpin much of his future music. Sanders wrote on the sleeve notes:

‘I don’t really see the horn anymore. I’m trying to see myself. And similarly, as to the sounds I get, it’s not that I’m trying to scream on my horn, I’m just trying to put all my feelings into the horn. And when you do that, the notes go away … Why [do] I want clusters [of notes]? So that I [can] get more feeling, more of me, into every note I play. You see, everything you do has to mean something, has to be more than just notes. That’s behind everything I do – trying to get more ways of getting feeling out.’

Much of his reputation rests also on the albums he made with Alice Coltrane, pianist and widow of John, and vocalist, Leon Thomas. With Alice Coltrane he turned to the modal style, made famous on records like Coltrane's ‘My Favorite Things’ and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. His records from the turn of the decade with Thomas would bring him to the attention of a whole new fan base twenty years later, due to Galliano’s cover of ‘Prince of Peace’ (also much sampled by hip-hop producers) and Giles Peterson’s playing of ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan’ regularly on his Kiss FM show.

Perhaps more than any other jazz musician of his generation, Sanders embraced a spiritual Pan-Africanism in his music from Tauhid onwards, particularly on tracks like ‘Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah’, with its distinctive use of African percussion. Throughout his work, like other jazz musicians exploring the borders of sound, his music veers between being very tightly structured and repetitive, and having almost no structure. More woodwind instruments can be heard throughout his seventies albums and Indian influences come to the fore in the ragas of 1974’s Village of the Pharoahs. It’s also worth commenting that he was the last surviving member of Coltrane’s last band, and in many ways the last surviving link to an incredibly vibrant period in African-American culture.

This is just a brief introduction to a bandleader and musician who released around forty albums under his own name, which is remarkable considering he released nothing for twenty years until his final record discussed above. This degree of musical expression was not matched by how he was in interviews, where he was often quiet and seemingly uninterested in answering questions. But that is of course fine, as after all, it’s the unique music that counts, forever striving for transcendence, unity and the spirit.

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