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

Joey DeFrancesco. (photo by: Raj Naik).

Although DeFrancesco is generally seen as a mainstream jazz player, a throwback to the days of Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, he’s always been open to other sounds and styles. During this year’s Jazz Cruise, he performed an impromptu duo set with pianist Chucho Valdés that was a highlight of a week with more than 100 hours of music. Conversely, DeFrancesco feels that avant-garde jazz players are often unfairly judged as wanting in fundamentals. “A big misconception about a lot of the free or spiritual jazz players is that they just play anything,” he explains. “They know exactly every note that they’re playing.”

He points to Sanders’ discography as ample evidence of his virtuosity and openness. “You have records with the ballads … he did a record with Benny Golson, a tribute to John [Coltrane]”—2000’s This Is for You, John—“and they’re playing changes. If you talk to him about music, he loves everything. It could be the most inside thing and he says, ‘Wow, that’s a nice tune. That guy’s got a great sound.’”

In his conversation with Sala in Pollstar, Sanders explained his approach to the saxophone from a slightly different angle: “I play very free. Other saxophone players, they know I don’t even worry about chord progressions or anything like that. I use my ear and I just play what I want to play, even now.”

DeFrancesco felt it was important not to put any limits on Sanders during the recording of In the Key of the Universe. “I didn’t expect anything,” he explains. “I expected greatness—I knew that was going to be there. But to hear that sound? You could listen to records or you could go see him live and there are microphones involved, but when somebody’s right here and that sound comes out, that’s a whole other ballgame. And it’s beautiful. It’s powerful, but then it can be sweet.”

In the studio, Sanders wowed DeFrancesco with not only his musicality but also his appreciation for the process. “He loves music, he loves to play. In fact, he’s only on three songs on the record, but he was there for the whole session. It was wide open for him to go back to the hotel, but he stayed for all the rehearsals. He said, ‘I want to be where the music is.’ That was really touching. He brought a great vibe to the session, just being there, everybody loved him. He’s really cool. Just like all that music, it’s just who he is.” Sanders also played on the title cut and “And So It Is.”

Another veteran at the session was the original drummer on Karma, Billy Hart, with whom DeFrancesco has often played. Saxophonist Troy Roberts also contributed mightily to the new album, as did percussionist Sammy Figueroa, who was a regular guest on DeFrancesco’s recordings early on in the latter’s career. The vibe created in part by Sanders inspired Figueroa to “play stuff other than conga,” DeFrancesco reports. “And he’s got his own whole bag of stuff that’s his. He’s got like a gas pipe that he blows through and swings it. He was in there just having fun. I said, ‘When you hear something, just do it.’ And that’s what he did, and it was nice.”

DeFrancesco even had Sanders do vocals on his tune. “In the studio I asked him, ‘Will you sing it?’ And he was cool, he did his scat thing. To be around him, though, that was the best part. Usually it’s been my experience that all the bad dudes, cats we admire, are the best.”

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“I’m into the whole thing, the universal language of people being one and together,” DeFrancesco says. “Not to get too heavy about it, but we need that. Everything’s a mess. That just goes back to how musicians, where we go and what we play—there’s a oneness that happens. What would we do without it? Every culture has it, some way or another. There’s a hunger for that. I’m a musician and I play. If I could change something only this much, it’s still better than not making an effort to change it at all—people, how they treat each other, and how the world is.”

Sounds similar to the sentiments you hear in “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” doesn’t it? Ashley Kahn sees this—and Pharoah Sanders’ growing influence on contemporary music—as no coincidence: “Now we’re in a time when all of that is needed again, so it’s no surprise to hear Kamasi Washington and Shabaka Hutchings echoing the sound and spirit of the elders, and Joey revisiting ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan’ with Sanders himself playing and vocalizing on such a timeless anthem.”

For DeFrancesco, the spiritual connection hearkens back to those early days in Philly when a young white musician was loved and supported by the African-American community. “I’ve had an awakening in the last few years of what all that means,” he says, “and how fortunate it’s been to be around such happiness and so many bright lights. I just want to spread that.”

For his part, Sanders, who declined to be interviewed by phone for this story, said in an email to JazzTimes: “People should have their own experience with the music. I’ve said what I needed to say with my horn. The rest is up to them.”