Artist Spotlight: Pharoah Sanders
by Seth Colter Walls | June 19, 2015
Our long-reigning master of tenor-saxophone overblowing, Pharoah Sanders — a late-period compatriot of John Coltrane and also the player who passed the free-jazz torch to Albert Ayler — is still out on the circuit, splitting reeds and blowing minds at age 73. His most recent appearance, on the Sao Paulo Underground album Pharoah & the Underground: Spiral Mercury, gives us a welcome opportunity to sift through 50-odd years of soulful and radical goodness.
Click play on our mix and you’ll hear Pharoah's wild introduction to the 1971 jam "Red, Black and Green." Though, lest you think our playlist is going to be a front-to-back celebration of noisy abandon, we switch things up on the very next track: "Bluesin’ for John C," written and recorded by one of McCoy Tyner's ensembles in the late 1980s. The aesthetic of the tune — urgent and swinging, with merely a trace of hardcore histrionics — may surprise listeners who think Pharoah's career has only ever encompassed high-avant theatrics. By the way, did you know that Mr. Sanders also has a tender way with ballads such as "You Don’t Know What Love Is," or show-tune standards like Kurt Weill's "Speak Low"? Give us your ear for a bit, and we’ll change how you think of Pharoah's career.
There’s the uptempo R&B crossover of late 1970s cuts like "Got to Give It Up" (which finds a legit place for skronk inside disco funk). And check out the hard bop sensibility of a track like "Beyond the Wall," from alto-saxophonist Kenny Garrett's 1990s Nonesuch album of the same name. Pharoah's tenor solo is up last on the track, and it’s a blast to hear him in fine improvisational form, well outside the stylistic confines of his most famous records. (Garrett would later make some funky space for his elder to roam around in, too, on a live version of “Wayne’s Thang.”)
Those Afro-mystical, blissful, spacey — and occasionally fearsome — early records that made Pharoah (in)famous? Sure, they’re here, too: everything from "Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum Allah" to "Thembi" to an excerpt from "The Creator Has a Master Plan." But we’ve also got more recent cuts from the saxophonist, produced by Bill Laswell. (Those include selections from Pharoah’s album Message from Home, as well as his sideman appearance on Sonny Sharrock's comeback album, Ask the Ages.) And don’t forget those late Coltrane records on which Pharoah plays a major role (we’ve chosen selections from Meditations, Kulu Sé Mama and Live in Seattle). Put it together with the saxophonist’s hottest performances on the Sao Paulo recording, and you’ve got enough visionary playing from Pharoah here to cover your next astral traveling session. Enjoy!