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Remembering Pharaoh Sanders

Albert Ayler described Pharoah Sanders as the Song in the Holy Trinity of jazz saxophone. It is with this reverence that the revolutionary tenor saxophonist and band leader is regarded by his peers and admirers. Sanders passed away on September 24, at the age of 81, bringing his remarkable legacy to attention.

Born and raised in Arkansas, he found the state’s segregation laws in the 1960s to be too restrictive – the repertoire in the few jazz clubs he was allowed to play in was limited to The Great American Songbook. Sanders moved to California and then hitchhiked to New York. There, he lived on the streets with not much more than his saxophone; opportunities for African-American aspiring jazz musicians were few and far between at this time, and provision for their welfare was fickle at best. Nonetheless, Sanders sat in on sessions and met with similar musicians to play when he could.

From 1961 to 1964, Sanders formed his own quartet, contributing to a widespread divergence from historic conventions of jazz, like regular tempos or diatonic melodies and chord progressions. Sanders had an anarchic approach to avant-grade jazz and began to pique the interest of critics and musicians alike, notably John Coltrane. He invited Sanders to sit in with his group after attending a concert of Sanders’ quartet at the Village Gate in 1964. Coltrane’s album Ascension (released in 1966) was augmented with solos from eleven new free jazz innovators, including Sanders. Ascension is certainly recognisant of conventional jazz, but the exploration of textural possibilities, almost vexatious in its loose layering of dynamic rhythms and frantic horns, was novel. The album opened the floodgates of free jazz to Sanders, who was invited to join Coltrane’s final quintet soon after. Free jazz extended further than theoretical experimentation; Sanders and Coltrane began to generate unconventional tones from their instruments, using overblowing to produce a grating, multiphonic effect. 

After Coltrane’s death, Sanders broke from his era of unbound improvisation and began to experiment with a gentler, more spiritual sound during the 1970s and 1980s. Alice Coltrane guided Sanders in this, and the two made Journey in Satchidananda in 1971. While remaining experimental, Sanders adapted his style for the Indian Carnatic sound. His crystalline intonation perfectly complements Coltrane’s harp, with the grounding drone-and-bass texture from the tamboura and double bass allowing Sanders to wander, captivating and hypnotising the listener while keeping the musical progression rooted.

Most recently, Sanders featured on the album 2021 Promises, with Floating Points, an electronic producer and DJ, and the London Symphony Orchestra. He added his remarkable ‘sheets of sound’ to the cosmic soundscape of the album. Sanders at once juxtaposes the billowing strings of the LSO while enunciating delicate electronic touches. Promises showcases Sanders’ distinctive style, and his influence on modern projects across his nearly-60-year career.

Sanders’ accolade extends further than simply raw talent – he defined the spiritual jazz genre. The tumultuous and transformative racial developments the 1960s Civil Rights movement accompanied a renaissance questioning what it meant to be Black in the United States. Religion was questioned, and revolutionaries began to extend ‘freedom’ to religious practice, thereby breaking away from orthodox American Christianity. The marring of religion and jazz culminated in the spiritual jazz movement – from the ecstatic swells of volume drawn from gospel and Southern Baptist churches to the meditative and introspective sounds from South and Southeast Asia. Pioneered by John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, spiritual jazz rose in 1960s. Sanders was central to this revolution.

In a way, Sanders’ freedom of expression can be seen as a manner of revolution in itself. As Nina Simone wrote in her autobiography, calling her a jazz singer was a way of “ignoring [her] musical background because [she] didn’t fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be”. Sanders was amongst the wide set of musicians who questioned the very definition of jazz, and the institutions which defined it. Free jazz and spiritual jazz were born out of a fervent break from the rigidity of jazz; Sanders was unable to express himself within a limited handful of standards.

Wider than this, Sanders never embarked on a musical project with any commercial goals in mind, or the intention of satisfying labels or audiences. He played feelingly and emotionally, only responding to whatever note he had played previously, almost out of surprise. With perhaps less technicality than some of his counterparts, he used music as a conduit to “express”. This approach to music – outside the confines of categorisation – is the essence of Sanders’ legacy.

In his timeless words: “I play one note, maybe that one note might mean love. And then another note might mean something else. Keep on going like that until it develops into—maybe something beautiful.”

Image ‘Pharoah Saunders‘ by Bob Travis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.