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Pharoah Sanders at the Rialto Theater, Atlanta, Georgia Photo: Judy Ondrey

Pharoah Sanders: Wisdom Through Music


By Philip Auslander

The Pharoah Sanders Quartet takes the stage at the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University. Sanders, a living jazz legend, seems a bit frail at 77. When not playing a melody or a solo, he absents himself from the stage, allowing the other musicians (pianist William Henderson, who has been playing with Sanders for decades, bassist Nat Reeves, and drummer Joe Farnsworth) to play and take extended solos, returning only to bring the piece to its conclusion. As the evening wore on, he seemed to become more vigorous, making light of his apparent physical condition with comic dance moves and engaging the audience in a rousing rendition of “High Life (Going to Africa).” Throughout the concert, whenever he played, Sanders was the brilliant, authoritative tenor saxophonist he has been for generations, at turns lyrical and ferocious, inventive, joyful, masterful in phrasing and tone. The sound he coaxes from his instrument is deep, broad, and distinctive, a second human voice.

Pharoah Sanders performing in 2017

Arguably, it is only in the last few years that Sanders has begun to receive his due, in a career that has spanned six decades. He maintains a vigorous touring schedule, performing all over the world. In 2016, he received a Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts accompanied by a tribute concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. One of the reasons for this belated recognition (as both Gabriel Solis and Benjamin Bierman observe in essays on Sanders) is his association with the saxophonist John Coltrane, one of the most important and iconic musicians of the 20th Century. Born Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sanders was given the nickname Pharoah by bandleader Sun Ra, with whom he worked. Initially playing rhythm and blues, Sanders made his way from Oakland, California to New York City, arriving there in 1961 and living in destitution while struggling to gain recognition on the jazz scene. Sanders worked with Coltrane, whom he had originally met in Oakland, between 1965 and 1967, playing tenor saxophone alongside Coltrane on some of his last recordings and in the quintet he led in the years before he died. The music Sanders made with Coltrane is loud, dense, demanding, and dissonant: “difficult listening,” to use a phrase coined by Laurie Anderson. Although Sanders’s connection to Coltrane assures his place in jazz history, it is unfortunate that his own contributions have been somewhat overshadowed by his time in the orbit of such a luminary and his status as Coltrane’s co-conspirator in Free Jazz.

John Coltrane with Pharoah Sanders, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” Meditations, Impulse! Records, 1966.

Between 1967 and 1974, Sanders made eleven albums as a leader for the Impulse! label through which he carved out a musical identity that did not depend solely on his association with Coltrane (though he frequently pays tribute to his mentor in a variety of ways, naming compositions for him and regularly playing such Coltrane compositions as “Naima” and “Olé”). David Ake, in his book Jazz Cultures, makes the point that by the 1960s, jazz musicians were forced to confront the fact that jazz was no longer dance music, no longer youth music, and no longer popular music in the way it had been earlier in its history. In Ake’s view, jazz musicians had the choice to either embrace aspects of rock, the new youth music, and the culture of which it was a part, or position themselves against it. Embracing the new youth music could mean adopting electric instrumentation and rock timbres in the way that Miles Davis and many of the musicians who worked with his various electric groups did, or it could mean producing music that did not necessarily borrow from rock stylistically but still spoke to the ideology of the counterculture.


With his Impulse! recordings, Sanders trod the second path, though he did not court the counterculture directly in the way that Charles Lloyd, another tenor saxophonist, did by playing rock palaces like the Fillmores, for example. Nevertheless, his music resonated thematically with the mood of the Aquarian Age: it was about love, peace, spirituality, transcendence, ecstasy, and meditation. The titles of many of his albums and compositions suggest as much: Love In Us All, “Selflessness,” “Love is Everywhere,” “Sun in Aquarius,” “Love,” “Astral Traveling.” Although Sanders has always said that he is more interested in spirituality than in politics, the music he made for Impulse! is Afrocentric and refers occasionally to contemporary social issues, as with Black Unity (the title of both an album and a 37 minute composition). The length of his compositions, which frequently took up an entire side of an LP, and occasionally both sides (producer Ed Michel recalls flashing the lights in the recording studio when Sanders’s group had been playing for about 17 minutes to warn him that he was reaching the limit of an album side), encouraged complete immersion in the sonic flow.

“The Creator Has a Master Plan,” Karma, Impulse! Records, 1969.

Much of the music on these albums finds Sanders fronting relatively large groups, usually of around ten musicians. The core instrumentation is conventional for jazz--bass, drums, piano, horns—and with the exception of the guitarist Sonny Sharrock, all of the instruments are acoustic (though Sanders regularly incorporated electric instruments into his groups of the 1990s). But there are also instruments that bring unconventional sounds into the mix, such as the French horn on “The Creator Has a Master Plan” (1969), Sanders’ best-known composition, and African instruments, including the baliphone, kalimba, and African drums. In addition, Sanders frequently multiplies the conventional instruments: many of these sessions involve two bassists and all include as many as five drummers and percussionists. Sanders’s incorporation of African and sometimes eastern instrumentation and compositional devices such as a drone both connect him to the Afrocentric turn in jazz in the 1960s and 1970s and anticipate World Music.

Black Unity, Impulse! Records 1972

The music Sanders recorded for Impulse! has passages that are as dense and raucous as anything he recorded with Coltrane, but these are generally framed by much more accessible motives and playing. At heart, his compositions are built on simple vamps and melodies that seem sometimes almost folk-like, a quality enhanced by acoustic instrumentation and the ensemble spirit that pervades the recordings. Sanders’s approach is often additive: “Black Unity” (1972), for example, begins with a fleet-fingered, percolating line played in unison by two bassists (Cecil McBee and Stanley Clarke) that is quickly joined by drummers and percussionists who create an ambience around the basses more than they establish a specific rhythm. A harmonium provides a drone effect. Joe Bonner, one of Sanders’s frequent collaborators, joins in on piano, playing a straightforward two-chord vamp, which then provides the context for the horn players (Sanders and Carlos Garnett on tenors, Marvin Peterson on trumpet) to add an infectious, highly repetitious melody. They step aside to allow Bonner a bit of solo space, then return with the same melody that turns into ever more energetic free blowing out of which emerge solo voices, of whom Sanders is the first, playing in the intense, screeching style he pioneered with Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and others in the 1960s.


Unlike much jazz, harmony and melody are not central concerns in this music. The chord progressions are not complex; the tunes are simple, singable, even catchy. It is much more about variations of timbre and texture, and about the ebb and flow of improvisatory ensemble playing by a fairly large group of musicians, the way a voice emerges from the overall texture then recedes back into it. Multiple bassists and percussionists, often joined by other instrumentalists who move in and out of the flow, provide rich textural backdrops that both frame and envelop soloists in ways that sustain the idea of collective creation regardless of what is happening at a given moment.

Pharoah Sanders, Live at the East, Impulse! Records, 1972.

Free Jazz innovator Ornette Coleman reportedly called Sanders the best tenor saxophonist within that cohort. Sanders is a master of tone: his playing can be as aggressive as that of Coltrane or Ayler, or as warm and soulful as Ben Webster’s. He can also be playful and joyous both in his playing and his stage presence. Some commentators characterize his more aggressive playing as an expression of anger, but I hear it as an expression of joy and transcendence in the act of making music, as pushing the instrument to its limit to express an ecstasy that cannot otherwise be expressed. The power in Sanders’s playing reflects the spiritual dimensions of his music. In the tenor solo that opens “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” for example, his rough tone and use of vibrato evoke a call to prayer or the shofar blown to mark the end of the Yom Kippur fast.

Pharoah Sanders Quartet in London, 2011

Since the 1980s, Sanders’s group has been a standard jazz quartet, the configuration with which he performed recently at the Rialto Center. Although his playing retains his deeply personal sound, passion, fire, and beauty, the turn-taking conventions of the jazz quartet, in which solo passages alternate with group playing, have largely replaced the intense group interactions of the Impulse! recordings. That said, I was struck at this performance and when I went back and listened to Sanders’s recorded output from the 1980s and more recently at how Sanders’s quartet is able to achieve a richness and density of timbre and texture very comparable to what he achieved earlier with larger groups. The Aquarian Age, sadly, is in the rearview mirror, but Pharoah Sanders still exultantly seeks Wisdom Through Music, the title of his Impulse! album of 1973.

Pharoah Sanders at the Rialto Theater, Atlanta, Georgia Photo: Judy Ondrey

Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.

The Pharoah Sanders Quartet performed at The Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University on  October 14, 2017.

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