11/16/10

Pharoah Sanders: Out of this World

Review of performance by saxophonist at August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh on November 13, 2010

If anyone has a right to play the tenor saxophone with a tone and melodic approach that sounds like John Coltrane, it’s Pharoah Sanders. He only spent two years with Coltrane’s group, and that was over four decades ago. But that period of time was highly concentrated with musical activity. In a recent interview with this writer, Sanders was reticent to talk about his own musical self, but opened up when asked about Coltrane during the final, controversial period of the band leader’s career. Clearly, it should come as no surprise when Sanders says he approaches music as one, long continuing solo. After playing so purely with Coltrane, where else is there to go?

Accompanied by longtime band member William Henderson (piano), and a Pittsburgh rhythm section of Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Roger Humphries (drums) and George Jones (congas), the saxophonist’s intense overtones and shrieks weren’t as common as they were in the ’60s, but they shot out at the appropriate times. The evening might have had an unspoken degree of tribute to it, but Sanders clearly was the star.

For his first performance in Pittsburgh since 1982, Sanders sold out the 486-seat theater of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture at least a week in advance of the show. If the venue (which opened last year) wasn’t impressive enough as an acoustic venue, it marked the first time in years that a jazz musician once associated with “the New Thing” has come to Downtown Pittsburgh’s Cultural District of theaters and concert halls. Credit goes to the Kente Arts Alliance, which organized the show.

With some low-end rumbling from Henderson’s piano, the band began the evening with a vamp, which became “My Favorite Things,” generating enthusiastic applause from the audience. Sanders might have played more unhinged hour-long versions of the classic with Coltrane, and the 70-year old did unleash some of his signature overtone bellows five minutes into his solo, proving that the fire still burns. However his tone more often evoked the understated but probing feel of Trane’s Atlantic period, complete with some clipped phrases that were expanded and reshaped as quickly as they escaped from his horn.

When he interpolated the theme to “Out of This World,” the whole band kicked up a notch. Henderson’s comping was deeply rooted in the McCoy Tyner tradition, but when he soloed, he borrowed some of the shimmering qualities that Lonnie Liston Smith added to Sanders’ albums in Impulse! There were a few moments where the band didn’t sync up on the theme, but they more than made up for that with moments like Henderson throwing a 4/4 riff over Humphries’ churning 6/8 groove. Stretching out for nearly 30 minutes, the tune also featured dynamic solos by Dolphin (who in addition to numerous local stints has performed with Geri Allen and Wynton Marsalis) and Humphries (a veteran of Horace Silver’s Song for My Father band). Jones got his moment in the spotlight during “Doktor Pitt,” churning out one of the more melodic solos ever to feature congas.

A Pharoah Sanders performance probably wouldn’t be complete without his classic groove “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Tonight, it appeared briefly at the end of the first set. Dolphin broke into the heavy vamp and Sanders give a quick taste of before introducing the band and taking a brief intermission. But if we can’t have 32 minutes of it, like it originally appeared on Karma, this satiated the sold-out audience.

The energy continued through the second set, which included Sanders revealing his skill with ballads, in a delicate version of “I Want to Talk About You.” He also broke away from his more solemn countenance when he began dancing around the stage during “Just for the Love” and the calypso-esque “High Life.” Originally on the Wisdom through Music album, it featured the leader unleashing some throaty, “Yeah yeah yeah” vocals in addition to his duck walk.

The band was brought back for an encore and they responded by tearing into “Giant Steps” like they owned it. If the world still has some naysayers who think Sanders isn’t in the same league as Coltrane, this tune would silence them – all in a version as compact as the original recording. K. Mensah Wali – artistic director of the Kente Arts Alliance – summed up the mood of the evening best after the final song: “Amen, amen.”

In addition to contributing regularly to JazzTimes, Mike Shanley also blogs about jazz and music at his own blogsite.

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