Pharoah Sanders once wore his spirituality on his dashiki sleeve, posing for Impulse! album covers as if on the cusp of enlightenment, awash in dramatic studio lighting. The music was what you would expect from a man with an inside track to the Creator—overblown, hubris-riddled mush. When otherwise discerning listeners say they have a soft spot for albums like Karma, believe them—it’s very soft.
Photographed for Spirits’ fold-out, Sanders is caught off script, securing his white brimless cap. The eyes that once shot fire now have a compelling humility. The cap may not signify a hadj, but the eyes confirm a long journey back from trading on his association with John Coltrane and his Bill Laswell-produced makeover for Verve. Sanders looks like a man who wants to set things right.
That is exactly what he does on Spirits, a moving concert recording that pairs the tenor saxophonist with percussionists Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph, who mostly perform on traditional instruments. In the past, Sanders had a habit of bulldozing his accompaniment; here, he listens intently, and he soars as a result.
On “Sunrise,” the almost 20-minute opening track, Sanders is the epitome of patience, kneading the solemn, drone-anchored theme without resorting to the gratuitous voltage spikes that marred his work in the past. When he does let unleash the furies, as he does on the surprisingly Rollinsesque “Morning in Soweto,” it is only after he deliberately brought a well-formed solo to the boiling point.
Sanders also wisely picks his spots for his deep resonant voice and chirpy wood flutes, providing pastoral contrasts without stalling the overall pace of the music. And, most telling, he lets the extraordinary Drake and Rudolph shape much of the program with their passion for African music.
Spirits subsequently has the centered glow of indigenous music as well as the occasional jazz spark. As a result, Sanders has a new credibility as an elder of timeless traditions. It is where Sanders should be at this stage in his life.