When jazz legends grace the bandstand, it’s tempting to hope for an experience of time travel. Who among jazz fans hasn’t imagined themselves into the clubs of the music’s storied golden age? Among the musicians still with us from the 1960’s, Pharoah Sanders looms large. An enthusiastic audience packed into (le) poisson rouge for the chance to hear him at the opening concert of the 2017 New York City Winter Jazzfest. In a deliciously long, saxophone-centered night opened by Shabaka and the Ancestors, Sanders treated the crowd to two essentially separate sets: first one with his quartet, and then one with surprise guest Ravi Coltrane. Unlike some jazz elders’ concerts, which can feel like overly serious attempts to recapture the past, this evening was filled with playfulness, legacy, and celebration of the now.
The U.K.-based saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings blends his own London and Caribbean diasporic sound with Johannesburg jazz in his group Shabaka and the Ancestors. Enlisting a roster of South Africa’s young jazz players, he released Wisdom of Elders in 2016, from which much of their set was drawn. The night’s pared-down group of Ancestors drew attention to the twining, dissonant melodies of Hutchings and alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, often doubled with lyrics by vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu. Hutchings soloed with urgency over the teeming polyrhythms of drummer Tumi Mogorosi and bassist Ariel Zomonsky, building to a screaming clamor that foreshadowed Pharoah Sanders’s appearance. Tense, quiet vamps made space for Mthembu’s poetic recitations, giving political energy to the set: “The Sacred Cows have been slaughtered and their blood poisons the wells.” Shabaka and the Ancestors drew well-deserved attention throughout the Jazzfest—this first New York trip is unlikely to be the last we hear from them.
Pharoah Sanders’s once raucous sets have mellowed with age, and he called “The Greatest Love of All” as the opening number of his ballad-centered, playful first half. Famous for a bristling maximalist approach to the saxophone, Sanders’s sound is not an obvious match for melodic lingering. Guest vocalist Tony Hewitt brought balance with his restrained smoothness on “Too Young To Go Steady.” Sanders listened more than he played as his rhythm section drove through “Lazy Bird” with sometimes nostalgic stylings.
Had the concert ended there, it would have been satisfying. But Sanders had other plans, and called Ravi Coltrane up for a searing rendition of the John Coltrane classic “Olé”—it ran a monumental twenty-eight minutes. Every man on stage brought his best to the tune. If pianist William Henderson’s McCoy Tyner chords felt timeworn earlier, here they rang true. Energized, drummer Johnathan Blake and bassist Dezron Douglas dug into the groove, lifting the room out of complacent appreciation and into fervor. Coltrane soloed with meticulous pacing on the sopranino saxophone. Tension-building long tones moved to spiraling runs and finally into the gritty, overblown edges of the instrument’s tone. The solo awakened something in Sanders, who followed with his own ferocity, delighting his audience with strident multiphonics.
Blake and Douglas, the youngest musicians on the stage, each had long solos that circled deep into whirlpools of single musical ideas. Sanders listened carefully from his chair, eyes closed, hands swooping gently along with his young bandmates’ explorations. In the final crashing minutes of the tune, Coltrane and Sanders stood side-by-side in a double solo, each of them blowing from their own spot in jazz history. When Sanders swept the crowd out of their cheers and into his signature “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” their elation became a celebration.
The thrill of this concert came not just from an encounter with a living legend, but in hearing him interwoven with a new legacy in the making. The evening was a reminder that Shabaka Hutchings and Ravi Coltrane play the way they play in part because of Pharoah Sanders. Was it more mystical knowing that Sanders played that same room (then the Village Gate) with John Coltrane’s octet in 1965? Sure, but romanticizing the past comes with the danger of occluding the present. What the Winter Jazzfest continuously helps show is that we don’t need time travel in order to hear extraordinary jazz. Greatness is with us right now.