Pharoah Sanders: Spirit Ascending
I was in a state of high excitement at the prospect of seeing Pharoah Sanders play the Celebrate Brooklyn festival in June 2018. This was not just another musician gracing the great outdoor amphitheater stage in Prospect Park. Ever since his emergence playing alongside John Coltrane in the mid-1960s, Sanders has occupied a different role, more akin to an oracle than a tenor sax player. Yet with rain settling in at the start of the concert, the prospects looked a bit bleak. Just when Sanders took the stage, though, the skies cleared, and he began a sweeping version of the lyrical Coltrane composition "After the Rain." What followed was a presentation of intensely soulful playing that exuded mastery. The oracle had arrived, and he had come to play.
Many musicians, including Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Dewey Redman, seized on the revolutionary spirit of the '60s to extend their work into new territory. But Coltrane and Sanders together pushed their music farther than any of their contemporaries into an empyrean realm, virtually creating the category of spiritual jazz. In the grand but sensible words of free jazz icon Albert Ayler, "Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost."
Coltrane's playing always had a profound, searching quality, from his days with the Miles Davis Quintet to his collaborations with Thelonious Monk to his peerless solo recordings, such as Impressions and Giant Steps. I have often puzzled about what made his playing so indelible. As with all great musicians, the first and most important element was his sound—in essence, his voice. This was evident both in heart-stopping ballads such as "Naima" and "In a Sentimental Mood," the latter recorded with Duke Ellington, and extended chromatic explorations like "My Favorite Things." Dry and unadorned, it always suggested yearning, a reaching toward an awareness of something larger.
The other key quality that made Coltrane such a central figure was his scope—the scale of his conceptions, his desire to convey all types of experience through music. He took a major step in this direction with his 1964 recording A Love Supreme. Here was an attempt to create a holy abstract meditation, a musical communion with higher powers. This required playing that was both "in" (conversant with traditional harmonies) and "out" (reaching beyond existing conventions). It was at this point that Coltrane formed an association with Sanders, who first appeared on Ascension, a 1965 recording that also featured avant-garde luminaries like altoist Marion Brown and tenor player Archie Shepp. All of these younger players were reaching for the outer dimensions of sound, but Sanders went right to the limit. His sometimes screeching, howling approach alienated a large number of listeners. Yet artistically, it had the effect of announcing a new ambition: to obliterate barriers and take listeners on a free-form journey into the unknown.
Sanders has not given many interviews in his long career, but he did engage in a spirited and charming talk with his younger alto-playing peer Kenny Garrett, who asked him, "I've always wondered what it felt like to stand on the bandstand with John Coltrane and hear that beautiful sound. What went through your mind? Because when I'm standing next to Pharoah, what's going through my mind is, 'Oh, he has such a beautiful sound.'" Sanders answers simply, "Whatever John did was coming from inside… It seemed like the sound had more meat, more of everything that I'm looking for. I didn't want to sound like that, but I was trying to figure out how was he able to go beyond." Always, the seriousness of their mission shone through.
In 1969, Sanders released his own epochal work, the album Karma, which contained the multi-part suite "The Creator Has a Master Plan." That remains the touchstone for many of his admirers, embodying the full reach of his ambitions: music with spiritual attunement at its core. And as with Coltrane, it was defined by the very particular sound that Sanders generated: thunderous, roiling, yet underpinned by a kind of cosmic calm.
These questing works by Coltrane and Sanders, along with some from the same period by Miles Davis (Bitches Brew) and Albert Ayler (In Greenwich Village), also had a scouring effect. (One thinks of a parallel movement some 15 years earlier in painting, regarding the conscious removal of all superfluous effects, best summarized by critic Harold Rosenberg's comment, "Newman closed the door, Rothko pulled down the shades, and Reinhardt put out the light.") Once jazz, which was rapidly being eclipsed by rock as America's popular music, had set itself on this newer path, it was better able to take in new influences from a variety of sources, though some never forgave it this leap into the unknown.
Following the death of Coltrane in 1967, Sanders played on a number of recordings by his widow Alice, which continued in a free and meditative direction. He found renewal with the influence of African music and electronic instrumentation, first in the 1971 opus Thembi, named for his infant daughter. But the influence of Coltrane understandably never left him. He regularly returned to Coltrane compositions and continued to explore the spiritual realm his mentor had opened for him. On the 1987 recording Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong, Sanders offers a magisterial take on the Coltrane-written "Equinox," underscoring the gravity of this dark-hued composition. In the same year, on his Africa album, he recorded an original whose imperative title and relentless drive defines his approach: "You've Got to Have Freedom."
Over the past three decades, Sanders has continued to alternate between deeper inquiries into the Coltrane canon and outward leaps into new territory. As Coltrane had found the perfect foil in the ethereal pianist McCoy Tyner, so Sanders has been able to play perfectly off of the lesser-heralded but wonderfully attuned pianist William Henderson. On the 1989 release Moon Child, Sanders takes an open, loose, almost sing-song approach with the Abdullah Ibrahim composition "Moniebah." He returns to his long-ago R&B roots (with a free jazz twist) on the album Ask the Ages—recorded with the guitarist Sonny Sharrock—in particular on the number "Little Rock," named after his hometown.
To an astonishing degree, his playing continued to deepen. On the 1994 record Crescent with Love, Sanders again paid direct homage to Coltrane, playing numbers written by his mentor (the elegiac "Lonnie's Lament"), as well as more major key, open-structure works like "Light at the Edge of the World." That same year, he worked with the gifted bassist and producer Bill Laswell on The Trance of Seven Colors, finding fascinating common ground with a group of master Gnawa musicians from Morocco. Completing this trifecta was his recording of that year, "Solomon's Daughter," with the drummer Franklin Kiermyer, whose track "Peace on Earth" features a lush sax line set against a mostly two-chord piano figure to create a soundscape of surpassing beauty.
What unites all these disparate recordings is the sense of authority in Sanders's playing. They call to mind the last line of Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica": "A poem should not mean / But be." In emulation (never imitation) of Coltrane, Sanders creates a style beyond simple description. His sound announces itself clearly, even gravely. Its spirituality is open-ended. Asked about his religious affiliations, Sanders once said, "I try and pray all the time. The day's like one big prayer to me."