From one core motif, a ripple in the water, a majestic, serene Sunday morning trip unfolded. The nine-part promises (2021) was a carefully constructed soundscape of lofty lines, small bubbling sounds from harp to bells, complemented by the classical strings of the London Symphony Orchestra. Pharoah Sanders’ tenor sax was a thoughtful, earthly guideline for him. Sometimes simply bobbing along on sound waves, then freely improvising with a tender or more abrasive tone.
The American saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who died on Saturday at the age of 81, signed for the jazz record of the year last year. promises was an initiative of the British DJ and producer Floating Points and became a rather unexpected success for the old spiritual jazz king with the white beard. The album, at the top of many annual lists, was a growth brilliant – promises sounded stronger each time with a deeply magical and calming effect.
After the announcement Saturday through his record label Luaka Bop, that Sanders passed away in the presence of family and friends in Los Angeles, many jazz musicians paid their last respects. Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) also said „to have been happythat he knew Sanders. Their collaboration was an artistic comeback for the saxophonist. There was new attention for his music. More gigs at other, not necessarily jazz places. Online the value of his music on vinyl rose – like first pressings of old LPs like Pharoah (1977).
Pharoah Sanders, born in 1940 as Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas, made an unforgettable impression as an idiosyncratic tenor with a penetrating sound, exceptionally fast solos and a virtuoso technique. After the death of like-minded people like Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Sun Ra, he was one of the last living greats of the free jazz sixties. His musical life revolved around spiritual jazz.
In the mid-1960s, he stood side by side with John Coltrane, the influential innovator in jazz history. Together they played away from the flow with dissonant, screaming solos. Where to go free jazz records like Ascension (1965) and meditations (1965) no one knew.
After Coltrane’s untimely death (liver cancer), Sanders continued on that musical free path with influences from Eastern religion and non-Western instruments, both as leader and sideman. Albums were released with Coltrane’s wife, pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane. His records for the Impulse label were strong, mindful and meaningful. The song ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan’ from the album Karma (1969) became his own optimistic magnum opus, with the sung mantra: “the creator has a master plan, peace and happiness for every man.He played it at every concert.
In the 1970s, Sanders (his first name Pharoah was given to him by Sun Ra) started investigating how he could mix African rhythms, various layers of percussion and vocals, with jazz. His interest in free jazz waned. From the eighties, even more mainstream came into his playing, with styles he had previously ignored: modal jazz and hard bop. His playing became less robust and turbulent, but his tone remained sharp.
He continued to perform frequently. North Sea Jazz could count on him. The heavy tenor saxophone around his neck twisted his body a little more and more. In recent years he has also performed at progressive Dutch music festivals such as Rockit, Dekmantel and Le Guess Who. He seemed more and more like a skate-grandfather – caps on the side, baggy clothes, sneakers. Although the first impression was sometimes a bit slow: dozing on a chair. Only to shuffle forward, hesitating to produce some lazy first notes and then to find that truly clear deep sound with lots of overtones. Cheers from everyone who was there, including himself.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 26, 2022