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Pharoah Sanders: Moonchild

Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders (photo: Jimmy Katz)

To all of us nappy-headed water babies of the ’70s-college-types, freaks, militants, Afroculturalists-Pharoah Sanders was the greatest tenor saxophone player in the world. Sure we checked for Sonny, ‘Trane and Wayne, but they weren’t being played on the WHUR-FMs of the inner cities-Pharoah was. Folk today will never experience the rush of hearing “The Creator Has a Master Plan” segued between Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” and the O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy.” The fact that an avant-garde sax cat, prone to wailing, screaming and trilling, and Leon Thomas, a blues singer with a wicked pygmy yodel, could take that and other spirit-cosmic-rhythm-divine-out jammies to the morning/noon drive rotation was beyond cool. Tenor sax-wielding, dashiki-sporting, black-pop revolutionary-Pharoah was The Man.

Pharoah flashback: Fall 1969. One of my Howard professors, Acklyn Lynch, invited me over to his crib. He started talking about the “New Thing”-Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman-cats I had never heard of. He said they were playing the same things that Amiri Baraka and the Panthers were saying: It’s Nation Time. “Ummm, yeah, can I have some more of this wine?” I asked (it wasn’t nothin’ like Boones Farm). Acklyn smiled, flipped on a record and said, “Listen to this and you’ll begin to understand.” The record opened up with some of that patented ‘Trane-African shamanism: celestial piano, bells, shakers. I was blasé at first, then some kinda emotional déjà vu catharsis happened. I was shaken. I picked up the album cover and said, “Pharoah Sanders, Tauhid. Who is this guy?” Acklyn said, “He used to play with Coltrane.”

“Can we talk?” I ask Pharoah Sanders.

“OK, long as we don’t get into the John Coltrane thing,” laughs Master P. “I don’t know what I can say, that’s all over with.”

For the few who don’t have a clue: Pharoah played with ‘Trane in his final years, 1965-67. He catches mad wreck on Live in Japan. Everybody expected Pharoah to become the new Coltrane; he wasn’t and still isn’t interested. How about some stuff ya don’t know?

“I wanted to be a painter. When I was in high school, I was the school artist and all that stuff. I got into music late, around about 15 to start, y’know, playing in the school marching band,” says the former Farrell Sanders.

Historians take note: The most inspirational/influential person in Sanders’ jazz life was not J.C. but the cat who made him put down the brush. “Jimmy Cannon, a great trumpet player and teacher, started me out on the flute-a-phone.” Remember the flute-a-phone? It was a white plastic piccolo thingie that smelled/tasted like dog poop; most kids lost the desire to play an instrument after blowing a flute-a-phone. What got young Farrell hooked on music was the measure of the man teaching it. “You know how some people just come in the room and everybody can feel that person being really very kind and positive? He’s that kind of person. Everybody in the school, whether they were into music or not, they respected him. He had that kind of love. He wasn’t the uppity-uppity type of teacher-a very down-to-earth kind of person. Very like a religious person. He was a very intelligent man trying to do the right thing.”

Today, the term role model is a hollow social construct, but back in the day, a straight-up, educated black man like Jimmy Cannon was a griot/mentor/father figure to the community yout’. Cannon musta been like a very hip Shaolin priest, ’cause young grasshopper got busy.

“I was playing the cymbals in the marching band and I went from that to a look at the drums and from there to the clarinet, the alto saxophone and the baritone saxophone. I began playing blues gigs around in my hometown in Arkansas; most times the jobs would ask for tenor. So that’s what I did-I played the tenor saxophone a lot in the earlier days.”

Pharoah flashback: Howard University, Cramton Auditorium, Nov. 1971. Joe Bonner, Cecil McBee, Norman Connors, Lawrence Killian (piano, bass, drums, congas, respectively) are whipping up a maelstrom, Pharoah-Afro, black dashiki-steps to the mike. He exhales a rising torrent of banshee wails, unsettling screams, guttural cries. Saliva dripping from the mouthpiece, Pharoah busts, “I got the blues!”

Post-high school, Pharoah went to college for a minute to study art, then split to Oakland, Calif., in 1960 and formed a straightahead band.

“We was called the Oakland Raiders,” laughs Pharoah. “We come in a joint and they said, ‘Uh-oh, here comes these guys, they play very free.’ But we played all other things too. Tunes like ‘Confirmation,’ all the ballads along with that. People were kind of surprised ’cause we did everything; it was no one kind of thing that we just try to do.”

In ’61, Pharoah was introduced to John Coltrane in a San Francisco pawnshop-they were both looking for mouthpieces. In 1962, Sanders hit New York City. It didn’t take him long to understand that there ain’t no pity in the naked city.

“I was homeless for about two-and-a-half years. I walked around here in New York City for a long time just survivin’. I gave blood, I stayed at the Y, I went down to the Village and hung out. Somebody gave me a job playing in a club for $10 a night. I didn’t have any clothes, but they had a lot of tuxedos backstage [laughs]! Then I got this job working at a cafeteria-the Playhouse there on MacDougal-downstairs in the basement cooking. I didn’t get no salary, but I just ate free anyway. I played mostly in Brooklyn, the majority of gigs paying $10 a night, some of ’em $15, never did get to $20. At that time my rent where I was staying was about $46 a month. I had to pay the rent, it seems like I was pawning things to pay the rent mostly ’cause I wasn’t workin’ or nothin’.”

But like Yogi Berra sez, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”: ESP Disk released Pharoah’s First album in ’64. A year later, he was rolling with ‘Trane-but we ain’t going there, remember?

Pharoah flashback: Oct. ’77, midnight booty call. Says she’s got a jazz record she wants me to hear. Cool. Candles lit, incense burning, she walks over to the box, tosses me the cover (Pharoah Sanders, Love Will Find a Way, produced by Norman Connors…hmmm), drops the needle on the record. It’s Pharoah’s horn, but it’s kinda…Grover-y. Then Phyllis Hyman comes in…ree-dick-a-lus. “I love this album,” she says. Ah, me too.

“At the time, that was back in the late ’70s, I wasn’t signed with a big company,” explains Sanders. “Norman Connors, another drummer who used to work with me occasionally, he asked me was I on contract, did I want to do something. He liked most of my tunes he heard me play, but I told him for me to really get back out there, I need me a very sexy singer. I didn’t like using that term, but I had to tell him that way. A very sexy singer, somebody who could really put it all in it. That’s when he called Phyllis Hyman.” Love Will Find a Way became a quiet storm classic, sold pretty well, revived Hyman’s career and positioned Pharoah as heir-apparent to Grover Washington Jr.’s throne. He wasn’t having it. “I told ’em, ‘No, I ain’t gonna be that way, it’s either me or else.’ You know, you have somebody be trying to get you to sound like, look like, what somebody else is doing. I refused that. Another company, Capitol, asked me the same thing about doing something like Grover Washington, but I wasn’t ready to go that far commercial. I haven’t made an album like that in a long, long time or since [laughs]. I wouldn’t mind doing something like that again, but like I said, record companies they don’t want to pay, then I’m not going to play. I’d be ready for that, but they got to be ready, too.”

In the early ’80s, Sanders released a series of underrated albums (Journey to the One, Rejoice, Heart Is a Melody) on Theresa, a small Oakland-based jazz label. Self-produced, wildly eclectic-R&B pop tunes, Eastern motifs, free blowouts, tender ballads side-by-side-the Theresa recordings reveal a looser, more resourceful, emotionally nuanced, open-eared player. Inexplicably, the albums went cutout stateside, satisfying neither the Karma crew nor the Love junkies. Overseas was another story. Pharoah was rocking festivals, concert halls and opera houses, from Paris to Tokyo, the Theresa sides influencing the soon-come generation of acid jazz DJs, bands and clubbers. His iconic status was certified.

Looking around for a major label deal, Sanders signed with Bill Laswell’s Island-distributed Axiom label. Perhaps the only label owner in America as musically outré as the saxophonist, Laswell let him record whatever/wherever he wanted. In ’94, Sanders journeyed to Morocco to record with Gnawa master Maleem Mahmoud Ghania. The Trance of Seven Colors is an extraordinary album: spiritual, sensual, otherworldly, elemental. It gets you way open. The experience profoundly affected Pharoah as well.

“It really helped me to mold my voice a whole lot better on my saxophone sound. It’s almost like when you play a note on the saxophone and you’re thinking that note [doesn’t sound] like a saxophone. You’re thinking of it more as a string instrument; either a string or either a fluted type of sound, more like an Indian type of sound. What I’ve been trying to do is make my horn sound like a sitar. So you don’t think about notes at all. It’s kind of an inner thing that I do.”

Pharoah flashback: S.O.B.’s club in NYC, one night in ’95. Pharoah and the band are kicking some mean Afro-calypso ballistics. It’s only the second tune and the New York Times critic (enemy of “free” players everywhere) is already giving the gas face. A Verve publicist walks over, grabs his notepad and pen. She tells him, “Look, you don’t have to review the show. Just take the night off.”

“Well, you know, I always love to have some kind of basic something-a melody or something to feed off-as the skeleton. You have to play a little bit longer than what most guys play, the time that they play. You play just a little short time you just might repeat yourself a lot, y’know? I make a note just play and keep playing-it’s all about the spirit. My playing was still sort of like inside but my thing was trying to find other ways to express myself. I’m searching this way, that way, but it’s like organized.”

In the ’90s, a whole new generation was cramming to understand Pharoah’s point of view: college radio fave, groove underground icon, hip-hop sample source. He recorded two of the decade’s greatest jazz albums (Crescent With Love, Message From Home) and clocked more tour miles and skrilla than the good ol’ days. Hard to believe that Pharoah got dropped by Verve as a casualty of the MCA acquisition of Polygram a year before the millennium. He’s got a brilliant new band-Spirit, with Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake on drums and percussion-with a new record [see sidebar].

Pharoah Sanders is featured on another album, Africa N’da Blues (Delmark), with percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio, including bassist Malachi Favors and pianist Ari Brown.

“I mean, who doesn’t want to do anything with Pharoah?” says a still-buzzing El’Zabar. “In terms of the spirituality associated with this music that I think Pharoah has emulated, and he has been a very good example in terms of the progressions of ‘Trane, and the idea that we as musicians are in service to that spirit. If I couldn’t play with ‘Trane in my life, I hope I’ve had the honor to at least do a thing with Pharoah.”

The Ritual Trio’s unconditional love is rewarded with some of the most fervent solos brotha’ man has ever put to tape (check him shredding hard chromatics on “Miles’ Mode”). Genuinely humbled by the praise, Pharoah simply replies, “Really, you think so, huh? It was all [El’Zabar’s] tunes. He allowed me to look at it just like it was my tunes. So I did the best that I could on it.”

On Oct. 14, Pharoah Sanders will be 60. With all that he has accomplished, no one would blame him if he opted to coast out on the legend tip. Fuhgeddaboutit.

“I don’t know what other musicians feel. My thing is trying to convey the most highest purification of music, sound and whatever there is. I’m not a person that’s gonna be on the bandstand and just be blowin’ [laughs]. I get very into it myself; it’s like a spiritual experience to me. I’m just gonna go on and play. It’s music from the heart. I have no other solution than to look at it that way.”

Originally Published