Monday, March 1, 2021
Arts + Culture Music A playlist celebrating Pharoah Sanders' 80th trip around the...

A playlist celebrating Pharoah Sanders’ 80th trip around the sun

The legendary saxophonist and free jazz icon streams a birthday show Tue/13. Here's an intro to his astral output


On Tue/13, legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders will perform at a special concert streamed from Zebulon in Los Angeles to celebrate his 80th birthday. Called “Another Trip Around the Sun,” the concert, announced in Variety last month, will see Sanders joined by Azar Lawrence on sax, John Beasley on keyboards, Tony Austin on drums, and Sekou Bunch on bass. The concert will begin at 7pm. For ticket and viewing info click here.

“We are honored to welcome the heroic Pharoah Sanders,” Zebulon’s management said in a statement. “We miss the music community, the friendship, and random encounters, and look forward to sharing the spirit of our venue.” All proceeds will go toward Pharoah Sanders, his musicians, and Zebulon. 

Pharoah Sanders, born in 1940, is one of the last living legends with connections to players like Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane. His tenor saxophone playing, easily recognizable, has earned him royal status among free jazz players, critics, and collectors. 

At the beginning of his career, Sanders was interested in urban blues music, but his high school teacher exposed him to jazz, which took Sanders in an entirely new direction. Once completing high school he quickly packed his belongings, departed from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1959, and headed to Oakland, where he got a chance to play with saxophone players Sonny Simmons and Dewey Redman. Next, he met John Coltrane and moved to New York where the major jazz scene was happening, and honed his craft at rehearsals with Sun Ra…. Sadly he was not making much money with the Arkestra and soon found himself living on the streets, trying to stay up all night playing and then scrounging for money during the day, often selling blood to eat.

It wasn’t until he started playing with his old friend John Coltrane that he would fully establish that ‘sheets of sound’ fury via his saxophone on the world of free jazz. The records Pharoah Sanders played on for Coltrane laid the foundation of what was to come for both the world of free jazz and energy music. After Coltrane’s tragic death Sanders would record further with Alice Coltrane, John’s widow, in the creation of a gentler and more structured aesthetic which became known as cosmic, spiritual, or astral jazz. During the last 30 years, Sanders has also woven elements of retro rhythm and blues, swing, and bop into his music—similar to his contemporary Archie Shepp, another leading nonconformist of the mid-1960s, has done. Astral jazz, for the most part, has become his calling card. 

In celebration of this American Master and his 56-year cannon, we’ve provided entry points to Sanders’s vast genre-bending career. These are moments throughout an enigmatic orbit that moves the spirit.  

Happy Birthday, Pharoah Sanders!

Pharoah Sanders, Tauhid (Impulse! 1967)

Tauhid, recorded in 1966 and the first of 11 albums which Sanders released on Impulse! before leaving the label six years later, remains stately due to the exquisite beauty of its opener, the 16-minute “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt.”

Pharoah Sanders, Karma (Impulse! 1969)

While Tauhid is noted as Sanders’ best Impulse! album, Karma is his best known. The 33-minute track “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” featuring vocalist Leon Thomas, with chanted iterations of the track title, becomes a hypnotic mantra. With Lonnie Liston Smith added to the mix… it still levitates.

Alice Coltrane, Ptah, The El Daoud (Impulse! 1970)

The first of three Impulse! albums released under harpist/pianist Alice Coltrane’s leadership, on which Sanders is featured (the others are 1968’s A Monastic Trio and 1971’s Journey in Satchidananda). On Ptah, The El Daoud, Sanders, on tenor saxophone, alto flute, and bells, is heard alongside Joe Henderson, also on tenor saxophone and alto flute. Another astral jazz benchmark.

Pharoah Sanders, Black Unity (Impulse! 1972)

The title track takes up both sides of the record…. and it’s still not enough time. Produced by Lee Young, Lester Young’s older brother, Black Unity is a cohesive, succinct, and powerful piece of art. Trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson (trumpeters were rarities on most astral jazz albums of the period, including Sanders’) and tenor saxophonist Carlos Garnett are on-message front-line partners. Lee Young went on to become an A&R man at Motown.

Pharoah Sanders, “Love Will Find A Way” (Arista 1977)

A brief detour into more of a commercial sound, at the beckoning of Clive Davis (head of Arista), the single “Love Will Find A Way” became a staple at many college and Black radio stations at the time. A bit quiet storm in style, but coming from Sanders, it still carried a deeper sentiment.

Sonny Sharrock, Ask The Ages (Axiom Records 1991)

Ask the Ages was the last album released by jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock before his death in 1994. Produced by Bill Laswell and Sharrock, who performed with Pharoah Sanders, bassist Charnett Moffett, and drummer Elvin Jones, it runs the full range from surging energy to quiet solitude. Rolling Stone magazine said it sounded like a “classic free-blowing jazz album from the ’60s had been recorded with the clarity and punch of today’s rock.”

It was the last time the free-jazz guitar pioneer Sharrock got to play with his friend Sanders.

John-Paul Shiver
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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