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Pharoah Sanders: In the Beginning (1963-1964)

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While most of the tenor saxophonist’s landmark recordings on Impulse !-as a leader and as sideman with John Coltrane-have been reissued, Pharoah Sanders’ formative sessions with Don Cherry, Paul Bley and the Sun Ra Arkestra in 1963-64 had lain dormant until ESP opened the vaults, unleashing the embryonic fury of one of avant-jazz’s squealing shamans. For chronological purposes, this four-CD set includes Sanders’ 1964 debut for ESP, Pharoah’s First , despite the album having been remastered and reissued already. Known primarily for his pan-African forays into hypnotic percussion-driven grooves, these sessions shed some light on the development of Sanders’ vision, even though In the Beginning is less of a Sanders collection than a compendium of four of the avant-garde’s leading innovators of that era.

The first disc commences with an interview in which Sanders recalls his arrival in the Big Apple in 1962, followed by a Jan. 3, 1963 date of the Don Cherry Quintet laying down five tracks of heavily Ornette-inspired harmolodic hard bop. Sanders features prominently on two different takes of “Cocktail Piece,” his brusque and highly charged soloing setting the stage nicely for Cherry’s skating trumpet and the dynamic interplay of bassist David Izenzon and drummer J.C. Moses. For years labeled a charlatan, Sanders proves adept at mastering the bebop idiom with some surprisingly graceful playing on a Monk medley. The disc continues with a May 25, 1964 Paul Bley Quartet date, featuring Coleman stalwart Izenzon again on bass and Paul Motian on drums. The five tracks here consist of three Carla Bley compositions that merge her affinity for Bud Powell and Monk with contemporary classical concepts, giving the musicians fairly difficult terrain to travel. Sanders sounds natural in this context, maneuvering with agility and purpose, gamely sparring with Bley’s ivories and Motian’s crisp cymbal patterns.

One can’t discuss Sanders’ early oeuvre without dissecting Pharoah’s First , which is included in its entirety on the second disc, bookended by interviews with Sanders and label owner Bernard Stollman. This album truly protrudes in the tenor’s early catalogue, notwithstanding that mostly useless Latin Jazz Quintet album. The overall demeanor of the two sidelong cuts (“Seven by Seven” and “Bethera”) is purely hard bop, energetic but largely nondescript. Sanders allows trumpeter Stan Foster and pianist Jane Getz to shine, especially the latter with her forceful comping and fluid solos stylistically reminiscent of McCoy Tyner. It’s a shame she was only captured here and on a live Mingus session, also recorded in 1964, because she could positively cook.

Drummer Marvin Patillo also suffers from lack of documentation-he can only be heard elsewhere on Sonny Simmons’ Staying on the Watch-but his superbly propulsive swing leaves a lasting impression. Sanders sounds confident when he is playing, though ultimately contained. There’s an undeniably palpable sensation that this session was a result of an open date on the studio calendar and Sanders just happened to be the most recognizable name, thusly earning the “leader” title. Overall, it’s not a particularly memorable debut but nevertheless an intriguing document of Sanders’ bestial growling
and occasionally overbearing presence.

The third and fourth discs comprise the two Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra sets from the Jazz Composers Guild’s Four Days in December festival, considered the first festival showcasing the nascent free-jazz movement. These sets, dated Dec. 30-31, 1964, are the only known recordings from Sanders’ brief tenure with Sun Ra, revealing a match made in heaven (or perhaps Saturn?), his bleating, braying horn jostling with Marshall Allen’s alto and Pat Patrick’s baritone to create a choir of cawing chaos. Sanders finds himself mostly in a supportive role with the ensemble; if anything, the set ends up being a display for Clifford Jarvis’ astonishingly expansive percussion colorations. One need look no further than Sanders’ stint with Ra to see where Tauhid and Thembi find their rhythmic-and spiritual-inspiration.

Originally Published