5 Great Albums Featuring Pharoah Sanders, Sideman

The saxophonist's most exhilarating outings on others’ albums

Pharaoh Sanders. (photo by: Raj Naik).

While Pharoah Sanders earned jazz immortality with his own “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” some of his finest recorded moments have been on projects led by other artists. Between the combustible partnership with John Coltrane that made his name and his recent hookup with Joey DeFrancesco, here are five of Sanders’ most exhilarating collaborations.

Don Cherry
Symphony for Improvisers (Blue Note, 1966)

Five years after Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking Free Jazz, trumpeter Don Cherry led his own experiment in uncharted invention. Sanders is on familiar twin-tenor terrain alongside Gato Barbieri, with muscular propulsion courtesy of bassists Henry Grimes and Jean-François Jenny-Clark and Cherry’s fellow Ornette alum Ed Blackwell. It’s an eclectic outing, with subtle touches provided by Karl Berger’s vibes and Sanders’ piccolo, but freneticism is at the forefront.

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Alice Coltrane
Ptah, the El Daoud (Impulse!, 1970)

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In the transcendent piano and harp explorations of Alice Coltrane, Sanders found a spiritual connection as strong as the one he’d shared with her husband, who had died three years earlier. With Joe Henderson as second tenor, the intensity remains, but here it’s tempered by Coltrane’s more ethereal leanings, which she’d carry into even more meditative spaces (again with Sanders) on the next year’s Journey in Satchidananda.

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Sonny Sharrock
Ask the Ages (Axiom, 1991)

Sharrock had been a crucial element in some of Sanders’ best albums from the late ’60s (the mighty Tauhidin particular), and the tenor great repays the favor on the guitarist’s own career highlight. Produced by Bill Laswell, Ask the Ages is one of the most electrifying hybrids of hard rock and cutting-edge jazz ever recorded, full of serrated melody lines and overdriven skronk. In Sharrock, the always tempestuous Sanders finds a frontline partner who can match his ferocity while channeling it along unexpected pathways.

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David Murray & the Gwo-Ka Masters
Gwotet (Justin Time, 2004)

Though Sanders could always more than hold his own in a tenor duel, he found his fire-breathing match in the impossibly prolific Murray. The second meeting between Murray and the percussion group from Guadeloupe, Gwotet is fueled by buoyant Caribbean funk, a perfect (and necessary) foundation for the scorched-earth blowing of the clashing saxophone titans. It constantly threatens overkill, though the Masters’ infectious rhythms and exuberant chants maintain the high-spirited atmosphere.

Pharoah & the Underground
Pharoah & the Underground (Clean Feed, 2014)

Sanders’ earliest major-league playing opportunity came via Sun Ra’s Arkestra (a tantalizing glimpse of which can be heard on a 1964 live recording also featuring flutist Black Harold), and as he approached 75 he found himself in similarly cosmic territory with cornetist Rob Mazurek. Recorded at Portugal’s Jazz em Agosto Festival, the album combines Mazurek’s Chicago Underground Duo (with drummer Chad Taylor) and the Brazil-based São Paulo Underground to form a single band with a vast sonic palette. Sanders responds with probing curiosity, as ever meeting the otherworldly with vigor.

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Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.