John Coltrane once described himself, Pharoah Sanders and Ayler in conversation with jazz musician Albert Ayler as “father, son and [the] Holy Ghost”. Sanders played Coltrane’s sideman on many crucial takes, and like Coltrane, Sanders could cut either way: roll out a spiritual groove that landed like breakers on shore, or split the air itself into a trigonometry of fire and ether. Drawing on a broadly multicultural spiritualism in his music, but able to flee in wild exaltations on his saxophone, his music spoke volumes while he preferred not to, and is at the heart of any spiritual jazz discography.Like Ben As Ratliff wrote in The New York Times in 1999, Sanders was “one of American music’s sacred monsters.” With the death of his son, the last member of Coltrane’s last band is gone, and a crucial link to the powerful and now legendary New York jazz scene of the 1960s and 70s was capped.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Farrell Sanders began playing a clarinet he bought from a recently deceased member of the congregation at his church for $17. He briefly moved to Oakland, California, and then haphazardly hitchhiked to New York in 1962. Arriving essentially homeless, he began donating blood to earn money to eat. He listened to jazz played outside in the clubs, lived off cheap pizza and worked odd jobs, sometimes sleeping in the cinema during the day. He was not alone in this hardship – in a review of reissues in The Wire 343, music journalist Philip Clark reminds us: “Studying the vicissitudes of jazz life is a reminder of how thoroughly these musicians have been socially and culturally marginalized became “. In a 2020 interview with the New Yorker, he was described as still like just another musician trying to make a living — which says a lot about the lack of accommodation for American jazz’s preeminent cultural figures like Sanders.
In New York he carried his horn everywhere in his wooden box. He attended sessions where he could and occasionally put together bands from musicians who roamed the city like him. It is regularly reported that Farrell was renamed Pharoah from Sun Ra, but the truth was more prosaic – it was actually a name Sanders chose on a whim when he signed the union papers. He met and played with the Arkestra in 1964 and records of his sessions with this group exist in December of that year. Around this time he was also playing with Don Cherry and Paul Bley and recording his debut as a bandleader for Bernard Stollman’s ESP-Disk label. Stollman described Sanders as gruff at that brief meeting: he walked in, recorded an album, and left without saying much.
In September 1965, while still relatively green, Sanders joined Coltrane’s band (Coltrane was 14 years his senior). He played with him on now legendary jazz albums like Ascension, Meditations and Om. Coltrane died two years later, after which Sanders starred with Alice Coltrane in, among others, her classics Journey in Satchidananda and Ptah, The El Daoud.
Sanders recorded around 40 releases as bandleader and continued to perform John Coltrane’s tunes, even as he insisted on forging his own path. The core of his sound is found in the dense layer of albums made for Impulse in the late ’60s and early ’70s, which he recorded at a rate of two or three a year, ignoring label directions on tracks and timings. Sanders, as he often said in interviews, just played. A case in point is 1969’s Essential Karma, which spans two sprawling lengthy tracks and whose influences and intentions are manifest in every element: on the cover, Pharoah sits in a seated yoga pose, lit by a pale aura beneath dancing pink and orange psychedelics Labeling. From the opening moments of page one his sax enters like robes on royal carpets, followed by a lush forest of shakers, bells and flutes followed by vocal exaltation.
His playing was once described as “like midnight tides” – deep and fluid, full of powerful power and intent. There is an intensity of emotion in his singing – he is devoted in passion and intuitive in delivery. For example, in Love Will Find a Way, the vocals are a lyrical motif that propels the game itself through emotion rather than form.
However, his singing was in stark contrast to his speaking – in interviews over the decades, journalists despaired at his scarcity or his apparent lack of interest in answering questions. Most of the time he spoke in frustrating generalities. Many of his interviews are from the last 20 years, a time when he was already a living legend, but in the short answers he gives he is direct and unaware of his status. In one, he outlines doubts about whether he would have been willing to play with John Coltrane; or if Alice Coltrane liked the way he played.
Although he is a self-described man who did not speak much, he instills in his interlocutors a sense of what some call majesty and repeatedly speaks of ambitions to create “beautiful” sounds. “I play a note, maybe that one note means love. And then another note could mean something else. Keep doing this until it turns into — maybe something beautiful,” he told the New Yorker.
There is a clarity to Sanders’ music – it is simple in its mission to be beautiful, and it is this intent that endears listeners to Sanders’ work from the early ’70s perhaps more than other avant-garde spiritual jazz musicians drawn from his milieu have emerged. He evokes an open-hearted, unspecific spiritualism. When Phraoah’s tone is soft – as in Thembi’s Astral Traveling, or even the modernist loop of Harvest Time’s exquisite pause moment – there remains an intensity generated by his extended flights that has the power to evoke the illumination of painterly forms, like weather over landscapes . Balancing his melodic motives was a wild and transcendent playing style: locked to a groove, he soared with fiery intensity, heard in the screaming persistence with which he plunged back into the tumult on Black alongside Marvin Peterson’s trumpet unity enters.
Like former collaborator Don Cherry, Sanders’ music contained hints of a multicultural spiritualism – although in contrast to Cherry’s utopian communalism, the nature of Sanders’ spiritual vision remained quite elusive – “I look at all religions and just lump them all into one”, he said . There were regular references to Egypt and to karma and tawhid. He wore robes and also incorporated instruments into his music more associated with folk and traditional music, from African percussion such as balafon and congas to thumb pianos and wooden flutes. (His collaboration with Gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania is an integral part of his discography – an ecstatic fusion produced by the amazing Bill Laswell.)
After around two decades without recording as a leader, Sanders’ return in 2021 with Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd) and the London Symphony Orchestra was enthusiastically received. It combined his playing with ambient electronics and orchestra in a nine-movement one-track piece that became his best-known album outside the jazz world – it was described by him as “breathtaking”, “hauntingly beautiful” and “enchanting” in both mainstream and jazz music also specialized jazz reviewers. Crucially, Promises reaffirmed Pharoah’s status as a living legend and brought his music to a younger generation of listeners. Until recently, he performed live with Shepherd, where viewers were equally impressed and disturbed by his presence and frailty.
Sanders’ spiritual jazz was an open-door church, and it’s the bright, open-hearted embrace of his sound that made him a son and endeared him to wide audiences. Like his peers, he glorified a higher spiritual power accessible through the vibrations of music, and if he never quite verbally articulated the nature of that power or spirituality, it is because his playing said it all. As Clark wrote of Sanders’ early sessions, “his group plays music, but he found the thing himself”.
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