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5 October 2022

How Pharoah Sanders played against reality

The tenor saxophonist, who has died aged 81, merged jazz and spiritualism to forge a new sound.

By Philip Clark

The story goes that in 1962 a little-known saxophonist from a working-class family in Little Rock, Arkansas, arrived in New York City. Farrell Sanders was fuelled with such technical pizzazz that he impressed both John Coltrane and Sun Ra – so much so that Sun Ra nicknamed him “Pharoah” and Coltrane invited him to join his band.

In reality, any success enjoyed by the revered tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who died on 24 September aged 81, was hard won. Musicians who shaped the free jazz revolution, such as Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, have become deified, as contemporary players such as Kamasi Washington and Shabaka Hutchings gorge on their music for inspiration. But free music in 1960s America was played largely in the shadows, with scant financial reward and even scanter chance of mainstream acceptance.

At first Sanders found New York tough. There were periods of homelessness, of scrounging cheap meals and sleeping in cinemas while hustling for gigs. His fortunes turned when he secured a regular gig at a Greenwich Village coffee house, the Speakeasy. Sanders was unsure of his playing, reckoning the best he could muster was a pale imitation of John Coltrane. One person who disagreed with that view was Coltrane himself, who would drop by to hear a saxophonist whose emerging voice he found thrilling. In 1965, when Coltrane expanded his quartet to record Ascension, a labyrinthine collective improvisation, he recruited Sanders, who became a mainstay of the group.

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Sanders’ meeting with Sun Ra – a big-band leader obsessed with Egyptology whose music reconciled Ellingtonian swing with free improvisation and atonal sound masses – didn’t occur until 1964, when Sanders recorded with the Sun Ra Arkestra. The idea that Sun Ra bestowed upon Sanders his honorary name is pure myth. His grandmother had always called him Pharoah, and Sanders scribbled the name down when he signed his union papers, partly on impulse and partly to give himself something to aspire to.

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The depth of his improvisational genius didn’t just impress Coltrane. Ornette Coleman described Sanders as “probably the best tenor player in the world”. He collaborated with his mentor, Coltrane, on game-changing records including Ascension, Meditations and Om, and became renowned for playing solos made of sustained falsetto hollers that staked his claim on his instrument’s speculative high register, where he couldn’t always be entirely sure how it would respond.

I saw Sanders and his quartet at the Jazz Café in north London in 2011. His sound was majestic, a force of nature that haunted me for days afterwards. He played as if he was pumping his entire body and psyche through his saxophone, occupying a register to which only he had been granted access. With Coltrane his playing had been open-ended, with Sanders seemingly not just improvising with notes but against physical reality itself. In 2011, his determination to keep the music guessing persisted. Ecstatic grooves rolled onwards with apparently unstoppable momentum, against which Sanders interjected furiously, as though impatient to capture the impetus and turn it around.

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In his later years Sanders kept the Coltrane faith, often incorporating his compositions such as “Naima” and associated material such as “My Favourite Things” into sets. His recordings of the late 1960s and early 1970s – including Karma, Thembi and Black Unity – could not have been achieved without Coltrane’s guiding spirit, but Sanders shifted the terrain decisively. The cover art of Karma, which included his classic “The Creator Has A Master Plan”, had Sanders bathed in psychedelic light as he adopted the lotus position. This was a serious-minded attempt to reconcile free jazz learning with his absorption in Islamic and Buddhist thought. His saxophone floated on a carpet of bells, flute and Eastern percussion, with outbreaks of turbulence. Sanders was not aiming for “pure jazz” but a universal music, a meeting point of many cultures.

For a time during the 1990s and early 2000s, everyone wanted to collaborate with Sanders. He dutifully appeared on records by Jah Wobble, Wallace Roney and David Murray. On his last studio album, Promise (2021), he took lines for a walk around soundscapes by the British DJ Floating Points, aka Sam Shepherd, as played by the London Symphony Orchestra. In 2020, Sanders’ 80th birthday celebrations were largely scuppered by Covid. But in a streamed birthday performance from Los Angeles, that intimate communion between Sanders’ otherworldly aura and his improvisational daring was on proud display.

Whatever mystical spell Farrell had cast when he transformed himself into Pharoah Sanders six decades earlier, it unfailingly delivered pure magic.

Philip Clark is the author of “Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time” (Headline)

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!