Following his 80th birthday, we’re taking a moment to celebrate the work of the great tenor sax and spiritual jazz icon, Pharoah Sanders.
Best known for his transcendent work with John Coltrane in the mid-1960s and a goundbreaking eight-year solo run with Impulse Records beginning in ’66, Sanders helped define the spiritual jazz movement. As a player, Sanders is known for his overblowing (jumping pitch via air increase), harmonic and multiphonic sax techniques, and his Coltrane-inspired *”sheets of sound“.
*‘Sheets of sound’ is a term coined in 1958 by Down Beat magazine jazz critic Ira Gitler to describe the new, unique improvisational style of John Coltrane. At this time, Coltrane was playing these extremely dense improvisational yet patterned lines consisting of high-speed arpeggios and scale patterns played in rapid succession – expelling hundreds of notes running from the lowest to highest registers. Coltrane invented this style while playing with Thelonious Monk and developed it further when he returned to Miles Davis’ group.
Sanders merged his dynamic ability to combine smooth and discordant tones, with percussion-heavy free jazz (often influenced by Eastern religion) on albums including ‘Karma’, ‘Tauhid’ and ‘Black Unity’. Each entry challenging the listener with a set of complex, structurally fluid instrumental ideas. Decades later, Sanders’ output continues to resonate with future generations of LA creatives with Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Madlib and Terrace Martin all reflecting his work in their own.
The hallmarks of Sanders’ playing at the peak of his popularity was a naked aggression and unrestrained passion to push boundaries. In the years after Coltrane’s death, however, Sanders explored other, somewhat gentler and perhaps more cerebral avenues — without, it should be added, sacrificing any of the intensity that defined his work as a Coltrane apprentice.
Farrell Sanders was born on October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas. An only child, Farrell grew up in a musical household. Both of his parents had careers music teachers and he played music early on by accompanying church hymns on his first instrument, the clarinet.
His initial artistic accomplishments were actually in the visual arts, but one Sanders started playing the tenor saxophone during his time at high school he never looked back. His school Band Director, Jimmy Cannon, was also a saxophone player and introduced Sanders to jazz. When Cannon left his post, Sanders, despite still being a student, took over as the band director until a replacement could be found.
After finishing high school in 1959, Sanders moved to Oakland, California, to live with relatives. Once outside the Jim Crow South, Sanders could finally play in both black and white clubs. His Arkansas connection stuck with him in the Bay Area with the nickname of “Little Rock.” It was also during this time that he met and befriended John Coltrane.
Pharoah Sanders began his professional career playing tenor saxophone in Oakland before moving to New York City in 1961. It has been written that Sanders was often homeless and fellow musician Sun-Ra gave him a place to live, clothes to wear, and was the one who impressed the name “Pharoah” upon him. In 1965, Sanders became a member of John Coltrane’s band around the time that Coltrane began adopting the avant-garde jazz of Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor.
Although Sanders’ voice developed differently from John Coltrane, Sanders was influenced by their collaboration. Spiritual elements such as the chanting in Om would later show up in many of Sanders’ own works. Sanders would also go on to produce much free jazz, modified from Coltrane’s solo-centric conception. His years with Impulse! caught the attention of jazz fans, critics, and musicians alike, including Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler.
“He’s probably the best tenor player in the world.”Ornette Coleman to the San Francisco Chronicle, 2006
Most of Sanders’ best-selling work was made in the late 1960s and early 1970s for Impulse Records, including the 30-minute wave-on-wave of free jazz “The Creator has a Master Plan” from the album Karma. Although supported by African-American radio, Sanders’ brand of free jazz became less popular. Sanders left Impulse! in 1973 and redirected his compositions back to earlier jazz conventions.
In the decades after his first recordings with Coltrane, Sanders developed into a more well-rounded artist, capable of playing convincingly in a variety of contexts, from free to mainstream. Some of his best work is his most accessible. As a mature artist, Sanders discovered a hard-edged lyricism that has served him well.
To mark the spiritual jazz ambassador’s 80th birthday, you can catch Cassie Kinoshi and SEED Ensemble perform from his much-revered songbook, live streamed from the Barbican Hall TONIGHT as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival 2020.
The band’s line-up features some of London’s most exciting and innovative young jazz musicians including trumpeter Sheila-Maurice-Grey (Kokoroko) and guitarist Shirley Tetteh (Maisha).
Special guests include: Shabaka Hutchings, Ashley Henry, Richie Sievwright and Yahael Camara-Onono.