Joey DeFrancesco and Pharoah Sanders: Meeting of the Spirits

For his latest project, one of jazz's greatest organists has joined forces with a true man of the universe

Pharaoh Sanders. (photo by: Raj Naik).

In contrast, about 20 years earlier, Pharoah Sanders had a lot farther to come—literally—to establish himself on the jazz scene. Born and raised in Little Rock, Sanders experienced the bitter and often brutal effects of racism in the South. “Arkansas was so racist, I had to get out of there,” Sanders told his manager Anna Sala in a recent Pollstar interview. “It wasn’t too good for people like me.”

For a young saxophonist, the performance opportunities were challenging, to say the least. “In Arkansas you had to play behind the curtain,” he told Sala. “They didn’t want to see black people. They fed us, we had our little place where we ate, but they didn’t allow white people in there. Most of the jobs I played, a lot of parties and weddings, that’s how it was.” In 1959 he decided to move to Oakland, where he had family on his mother’s side. He only stayed there about two years, playing around town sometimes but mostly just practicing, until a drummer named Smiley Winters encouraged him to go to New York for more opportunities.

Only one problem: Sanders had no money for travel. So he hitchhiked all the way to New York, where he arrived hungry, penniless, and homeless. He somehow managed to survive by selling blood, sleeping in movie theaters and walking around the city with his horn in an old case. Eventually, he started hanging around clubs like Slugs’, the Five Spot, the Speakeasy, and other places in the Village that featured jazz. There he met kindred spirits such as Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, and John Coltrane, and started to find work. One of his first bands featured Clarence Sharpe on saxophone, John Hicks on piano, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. All except Sharpe became household names in jazz, but at the time they were all struggling to survive.

In 1965, Sanders joined Coltrane in what would turn out be the latter’s final band. He also met Bob Thiele, Trane’s producer at ABC’s Impulse! label. Thiele was a big fan of Sanders and produced his 1967 album Tauhid, but his attempts to sign Sanders to Impulse! for the long term were met with disdain by the executives at the top. In fact, 1969’s Karma, which features “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” was a one-off like Tauhid. As Ashley Kahn documents in his book about Impulse!, The House that Trane Built, it was only after the popular success of that song and album that the label gave Sanders a real contract; it would go on to release nine more albums by the saxophonist.

The original 32-minute recording of “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is buoyed by the otherworldly vocals of Leon Thomas, who provided the lyrics and used a distinctive yodeling technique to give the music a cosmic sheen. Sanders told Kahn that originally Thomas had come up with more mundane words for the tune, written to fit the bassline rather than the melody. The saxophonist told him that he wanted lyrics that would enlighten people. A few nights later, Thomas came back with “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”

Sanders also told Kahn that he wasn’t happy with the sound on the album; the engineers had put Sanders and the bassist on the same track, and therefore the saxophone ended up being buried frequently. Listening to it now, you can hear his point, but his saxophone sound is so full and robust that it does manage to rise above the mix.

Unexpectedly and inexplicably, Karma became a jazz hit, boosted by the free-form radio stations that proliferated during that period. Its key track has to be the longest radio-friendly cut in jazz history. Kahn says that song truly captured the late-’60s zeitgeist: “‘The Creator Has a Master Plan’ was Pharoah’s ‘Acknowledgement.’ Like the intro to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, it was for the same label, had the same producer, and used jazz to effect a spiritual experience, combining music and message in a day when anyone involved in creative expression, especially African-Americans, stood up and spoke out about unity and community, by whatever means necessary. Coltrane chanted his words; Sanders found Leon Thomas and played along with him singing his words of encouragement and positivity.”

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DeFrancesco remembers first hearing “The Creator Has a Master Plan” on WRTI, the local jazz radio station. “I was five, six, or seven years old hearing that,” he says, “and wondering what it was that was so long.” (A Philadelphia jazz fan could not have not heard Sanders’ tune; it was on heavy rotation for more than a decade on WRTI and remains a ubiquitous presence on the airwaves and in local venues.) It was the song’s groove, along with its trance-like quality, that attracted DeFrancesco. “I started to dig him more and more as I matured,” he explains. “There was always something about Pharoah and his tone that knocked me out.”

In 2004 the organist was playing at Joe Zawinul’s Birdland club in Vienna. His Philadelphia friend Orrin Evans was playing at another venue nearby with drummer Will Calhoun’s band, which featured Sanders. Evans brought the saxophonist over to see DeFrancesco, who encouraged him to sit in. “I was really excited,” DeFrancesco remembers. “First he played ‘Body and Soul’—incredible—and then he said, ‘Let’s play some blues in B-flat.’ And he did his thing! It was free, but it was inside/outside. He even did some old-school bar-walking. We had a ball!”

A few months later DeFrancesco went into the studio to record with Jimmy Smith for what would be the legendary organist’s last session, including a tune that DeFrancesco thought would be perfect for Sanders. “I called him up and he was game to do it, but he was going out of town the next day and by the time we got everything worked out, he couldn’t make it happen,” DeFrancesco says. “Then there were a couple of times we were supposed to tour together, but that didn’t happen.” Still, a connection was made.

During the recording of his 2017 album Project Freedom, DeFrancesco had an epiphany. He realized that his music needed to have a higher purpose. “That (album) was the gate to open up to what I’m into now,” he says. “As we go, things change and evolve. Being more in touch with the universe and that spiritual level, I wanted to move more into that way of playing.” He and his wife and manager Gloria decided that now was the time to reach out to Sanders about recording together.