We have another Cosmic Jazz special for you here as we celebrate the remarkable life and extraordinary music of Pharoah Sanders whose death earlier this month signals the end of a musical era that began with saxophonist John Coltrane. In the last years of his life, before his death from liver cancer at the age of just 41, Coltrane took the much younger Sanders under his wing including him in his post-Quartet groups – more of which later.
Following his tenure with Coltrane, Sanders went on to become the true father of ‘spiritual jazz’ – a loose term that encompasses much but which centres on modal structures, Afro-Asian timbres and an ambience that seeks to create a transcendental state for both musicians and listeners. At his death, Sanders was the inspiration for so many younger artists – including the UK’s Matthew Halsall, New Zealand’s Lucien Johnson and, of course, Kamasi Washington from the USA. His final performance was at Gilles Peterson’s We Out There festival in the UK – perhaps a fitting end to a 50 year career as he performed with his UK group in front of fans young and old. Sanders was born Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas before moving to Oakland, California and then to New York. Here he practised long and hard before being spotted by Coltrane who encouraged the young saxophonist to find his own unique sound – and what a magisterial sound it was! Immediately recognisable with a distinct use of harmonics, overtones and shrieking high notes this was a sound that explored the limits of the tenor saxophone’s register. But Sanders could be lyrical and tender too – in his later years covering American songbook standards favoured by his mentor, John Coltrane.
Pharoah Sanders recorded prolifically for the Impulse! label between the late 1960s and mid-70s with albums including ones we’re featuring on this show – Tauhid, Thembi, Jewels Of Thought, Wisdom Through Music, Black Unity and Elevation. From the late 1970s onwards his music changed direction somewhat and he found a new audience with 1979’s Journey to the One on the Theresa label. This included the anthemic You’ve Got to Have Freedom with the great John Hicks on piano. Sanders collaborated with many other musicians over his long career, creating unlikely but memorable partnerships including with the post-punk UK group 23 Skidoo, Moroccan Gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania and Kahil El Zabar’s Ritual Trio. Most recently, last year he worked with Sam Shepard under his producer guise of Floating Points, along with none less that the London Symphony Orchestra in a moving testament to a lifelong career of exploratory music making. As Kevin Le Gendre noted in his excellent Jazzwise obituary, he was channeling spirits that are set to live on in hearts and minds for years to come. His loss is keenly felt. His legacy is eternal.
1. Pharaoh Sanders – Greetings to Idris from Journey to the One
Our tribute begins with Greetings to Idris from that wonderful Journey to the One album. Idris is, of course, drummer Idris Muhammad who went on to release his own eclectic funk-driven albums. On the reflective Kazuko (Peace Child) he incorporates the Japanese koto, just as McCoy Tyner did on his superb Sahara album. Journey to the One also features Coltrane’s After The Rain in a straight reading much like Coltrane’s original. Sanders deploys a much larger group on this album including pianist John Hicks, flugelhorn player Eddie Henderson, bassist Ray Drummond and Idris Muhammad. Greetings To Idris is one of the many highlights of this record, released as a double LP in 1980, with excellent solos from Sanders and Hicks and the album also contains You’ve Got to Have Freedom – long associated with the UK jazz dance scene – with which we end this tribute set. It’s one of many memorable compositions on a faultless record that belongs in anyone’s collection.
2. Pharaoh Sanders – Morning Prayer from Thembi
Greetings to Idris is appropriately followed by Morning Prayer from 1971’s Thembi, the fourth of those Impulse! albums and featuring Lonnie Liston Smith on keyboards, Michael White on violin and Roy Haynes on drums. Recorded with two different ensembles, Thembi was a departure from the slowly developing, side-long, mantra-like grooves Pharoah Sanders had been pursuing on his earlier Impulse! albums. The tunes are much more concise but also more diverse too – lots of percussion, a bass solo from Cecil McBee (on the track simply called Love) and Bailophone Dance which both mixes everything together in a percussive blender and often sounds more like Don Cherry than Pharoah Sanders. Morning Prayer is a percussion-driven tune win which Sanders gives a noticeable amount of space to his fellow travellers – it’s a wonderful choice from Derek. Of particular interest on this album is the opening track Astral Travelling, composed by Lonnie Liston Smith, and the first time he’d ever played electric piano. Sanders’ tone here on soprano is just gorgeous.
3. Pharaoh Sanders – Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt from Tauhid
The first of Neil’s choices and a tune which features Sanders’ distinctive screeching over Sonny Sharrock’s hypnotic guitar line and Henry Grimes’ magical bassline. We featured just the second half of this side-long piece. The tune has been sampled and used in a number of different contexts: the bass line in Herbie Hancock’s Rockit uses the vocal melody from Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, various elements of the track were also used by J Dilla in his fragment Upper Gogypt, Lower Gogypt and Ras G and the African Space Program sampled the tune on the track Sunrise. Strangely, Impulse! haven’t had a vinyl reissue programme for these wonderful albums but if you can find an original copy of this 1967 release or one of the better Japanese reissues the recording is excellent.
4. Pharaoh Sanders – High Life from Wisdom Through Music
Wisdom Through Music is one the lesser known Impulse! releases but it features some fine music, including High Life – something of an outlier in the Sanders canon. As the title suggests, High Life is a tribute to the music style of West Africa and Sanders really does emulate the high life style with an stellar band including Joe Bonner on piano, Cecil McBee and several percussionists, including Miles Davis alumni Mtume and Badal Roy. This record and Village of the Pharoahs were reissued by Impulse! on a single CD in 2011 and this ‘two for one’ set is worth looking out for. Village of the Pharoahs is probably the stronger album of the two, but both records (released originally in 1973) have their great moments.
5. Pharaoh Sanders – Jitu from Shukuru
Next up is from one of the best of the Theresa label albums, Shukuru from 1985. We could probably do without the synth choir but Jitu is a sparking tune. Support comes from William Henderson on keys (including the rather dated sounding Kursweil 520), Ray Drummond on bass and Idris Muhammad again on drums – and vocalist Leon Thomas on two tunes. There are a couple of standards from the American songbook here – something Sanders would increasingly include in his later albums. So first up is Sanders’ take on Body and Soul (recorded by Coltrane too) which has a spacious, lush and more conventional sound as does the second Coltrane-influenced tune – Too Young to Go Steady, which appeared on Coltrane’s beautiful Ballads album and includes a lovely solo from Henderson on acoustic piano. Shukuru was re-released on vinyl in 2022 on Pure Pleasure Records and is well worth looking out for.
6. Pharaoh Sanders – Peace in Essaouira from The Trance of Seven Colors
The later, more lyrical Sanders is also featured on a more unusual album – a collaboration with Gnawa master guimbri player Maleem Mahmoud Ghania. Peace in Essaouira begins with an extensive Sanders solo – and it’s a good one. Ghania is heard on lead vocals, tbel (tambourine), and Guimbri, a bass-like, hollow-bodied instrument roughly three feet in length. The body, which can be struck by the musician as the strings are plucked, is covered with camel skin, while the strings are made from goat intestines. The title of the album refers to the fact that in Gnawa trance ceremonies (which can last eight or more hours over one night) the Maleem, or master musician, guides the group through a cycle of invocation of seven spirit states, each of which is characterised by a different colour, rhythm, melody and type of incense. Originally released in 1994 on bassist/ producer Bill Laswell’s Axiom imprint, The Trance Of Seven Colors is a wonderful record – and easy to get hold of now that it’s a recent reissue on vinyl – you can track it down here on Bandcamp.
7. Sleepwalker feat Pharaoh Sanders – The Voyage from The Voyage
It was to be expected that Sanders had something of a cult following in Japan, beginning in 1966 when Coltrane took on his first and only tour of the country leading to the Live in Japan recording from 1973. This included less than half of the two concerts which were only released in their entirety in a 4CD set in 1991. Sanders’ playing here is definitely at the more extreme end of his repertoire! More typical of Sander’s later output is this collaboration with Japanese jazzers Sleep Walker on their album The Voyage from 2006. Led by keyboard player Hajime Yoshizawa, Masato Nakamura on saxes, Tomokazu Sugimoto on bass and Nobuaki Fujii on drums. Sanders appears only on the final title track and is superb – but the album is worth getting hold of for the other tracks too (a couple of which feature vocals from Bémbé Ségué and Yukimi Nagano). There are copies available on Discogs – have a look here and see what you can find.
8. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme from A Love Supreme Live in Seattle
We went back to Pharoah Sanders with John Coltrane for the next choice – from the recently unearthed live version of A Love Supreme, recorded in Seattle at the Penthouse Club in 1965. The music on this unique take on A Love Supreme is pretty extraordinary. The recording places Elvin Jones’ drums front and centre but the additions to Coltrane’s regular quartet (Coltrane, Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison) of Pharoah Sanders on tenor, alto saxophonist Carlos Ward and a second bassist, Donald ‘Raphael’ Garrett, changes both the sound and the feel of the music. The spiritual fire of A Love Supreme is now added to with the more chaotic, ‘out there’ approach brought largely to the group by Sanders. It’s magnificently executed and – as a record of where Coltrane was heading in his later years – well worth getting hold of.
9. Pharaoh Sanders – The Creator has a Master Plan from Live in Paris (1975)
Next up in this Pharoah Sanders special is a live take on The Creator Has a Master Plan from a 1975 concert in Paris from an album also still available on Bandcamp. The band includes Calvin Hill on bass with Danny Mixon on piano and organ and Gregg Bandy on drums. A better recording than the previous track, this features some excellent playing from Sanders and some crazy chords from Mixon on the Radio France Auditorium theatre organ. It’s a recognition that seeing Sanders perform live was always a remarkable experience. One of the Youtube videos we have featured before on the show is the remarkable footage of him playing in an abandoned subway in Los Angeles – and it’s time to show it again. The tune is a version of Kazuko (Peace Child) from Journey to the One and Sanders is accompanied by Paul Arslanian on the harmonium at the other end of the tunnel. Check it out right here – it’s simply beautiful.
10. Pharaoh Sanders – You’ve Got to have Freedom from Journey to the One
We end the show with a perennial favourite – from Journey to the One comes the majestic You’ve Got to Have Freedom. It’s as good a place as any to end this celebration of the life and music of one of the most remarkable musicians of our age. With the same personnel as Greetings to Idris which began our show – that’s John Hicks on piano, Ray Drummond on bass and Idris Muhammad on drums together with (on this track only) Eddie Henderson on flugelhorn – this is a celebrated jazz dance classic and a tune we never tire of. We reckon it’s impossible not to feel better after listening to this glorious music which is why – as with Miles, ‘trane and a few others – Pharoah Sanders is a jazz musician we return to over and again at Cosmic Jazz as we all journey towards the light. More great music coming soon.