Each year, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, UK, promises to host at least one of jazz’s living legends. Past masters to grace the main stage include free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, funk master Herbie Hancock and jazz guitarist extraordinaire John Scofield. This year, expectations were running high after festival organisers announced that 70-year-old tenor sax legend, Pharaoh Sanders, would headline.
Under a suitably psychedelic backdrop, Sanders led a six-track set, rounding off each piece with cadenzas of spellbinding technique. Adorned with a golden African tunic and his iconic white goatee, Sanders resembled an ancient Saharan god. The venerable saxophonist hobbled on and off stage, regularly sitting down in between solos on the edge of the stage to rest his arthritic joints. Yet even when perched in the wings, his charismatic and impressive presence radiated across the stage.
Sanders is one of the most important musicians to have emerged from the 1960’s “free jazz” movement. He performed with John Coltrane on such seminal albums as Ascension and Meditations and played alongside the great man before his untimely death in 1967. The Pharaoh has kept the Trane flame burning ever since with extensive touring and recording; his quartet at Cheltenham marked no departure from this.
The show opened with a coruscating rendition of Trane’s “Giant Steps,” rocketed forward by the furious drumming of Gene Calderazzo. The impeccably-dressed pianist Jonathon Gee sent flurries of notes tumbling over the tune’s ever-shifting, churning brew of chords in a prodigious display of technical brilliance. This opener was followed by a mouth-watering rendition of “Naima,” during which Sanders’ tenor seared with fog-horn blasts and softened with moments of pure lyrical tenderness.
The highlight of the show was undeniably the band’s rendition of Coltrane’s anthem of modal jazz, “My Favorite Things.” It was as close as anyone today would get to hearing Coltrane play live. Soprano in hand, Sanders’ resembled a snake charmer whose cascade of hypnotic progressions rose higher and higher above the swirling 3/4 waltz below. The opening of the next tune made more than a few onlookers jump as Sanders bawled point-blank into the microphone, “I’ve got the blues!” – before ripping into a fairly lazy, fairly haphazard 12-bar blues number. It wasn’t great but most punters got a handful of toe-tapping moments out of it.
For a man once in the vanguard of the free jazz movement, Sanders delivered a surprisingly ‘safe’ show. While there were undoubtedly moments of inspiration, the repertoire was a tad standard (even the tired, albeit beautifully played, ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ got an airing). More than a few audience members in the bar afterwards expressed their disappointment that Sanders had neglected his own substantial back catalogue. However, the band did round off the show with Pharaoh’s most famous number, the sumptuous hippy-dream of “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” It was all too brief but to hear Sanders’ deep, rich voice crooning “The Creator makes but one demand /Happiness through all the land” was truly a delight.
Avant-garde saxophonist Albert Ayler once said, “John Coltrane was the Father, Pharaoh Sanders the Son, and I am the Holy Ghost.” Sanders certainly reaffirmed his status as a living legend here and his playing was undeniably world-class. It wasn’t the perfect set though; maybe with a few more rehearsals, his hastily-formed band might have made even more of an impact. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to sit among over one thousand people and witness a true Great of 20th Century jazz recalling with such raucous gusto a heritage forged in the post-bop furnaces of the 1960s.
But perhaps the best part of the entire evening-certainly for this reviewer-was the moment when I peaked round Pharaoh’s dressing room door after the show and observed the great saxophonist meditating in the corner. He may be getting on a bit, but the man is still very much spiritual leader of free jazz.
Editor’s Note: Losh’s review of a performance by Andy Sheppard and his new trio at the same festival is here.