Pharoah Sanders: Jewels of Thought

Pharaoh Sanders’ association with Impulse corresponded with the period during which, it seemed, the free jazz world was waiting for John Coltrane’s erstwhile proteges-Sanders, Ayler, and Shepp-to fill the void created by the master’s early departure. It was, for the most part, a depressing exercise culminating in Ayler’s death, Sanders’ disappearance from the scene, and Shepp’s move into other musical areas.

But while Shepp and Ayler both had one or two stand-out late ’60s records, Pharaoh seemed caught in a trap that snares many sidemen aspiring to be leaders: he appeared so concerned with the overall flow of things that he only rarely cut loose like he did with Trane, and even then it almost felt like he was looking over his shoulder. And the structures that his groups utilize are only superficially like the Coltrane or (early) Ayler formulae. There is an almost stubborn insistence on the simplest kind of modal simplicity.

One man’s tedium is another man’s mantra, I guess, and it should be said that parts of all of this work much better than I had remembered, particularly the impressionistic group improvisations that launch a couple of tracks. Pharaoh’s improvisational powers were at their height, and each record has about five minutes worth of searing free tenor. But you hear a lot more of Lonnie Liston Smith’s piano and, on “Jewels,” Leon Thomas’ whacked-out yodeling. Fans of these musicians and Pharaoh diehards will want these, but initiates should seek out his work with Coltrane and Cherry and perhaps even his much-maligned (by him) ESP date.