Pharoah Sanders

Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders is a bit of an enigma, a supremely talented musician who has been recording professionally since the 1960s and who collaborated with John Coltrane during the last few years of his life, but who rarely gives interviews or talks about himself. The New Yorker convinced him to do an interview this year which is informative, though still light on details as Sanders’ answers are brief. Perhaps the most intriguing revelations are that he’s rarely if ever satisfied with his own playing, and that generally he doesn’t listen to music but instead to the sounds around him, be they the sounds of nature or the sounds of the city.

I’m not sure I ever would have made it to Sanders on my own – I’m hardly a jazz aficionado, and I tend to shy away from the more avant-garde and free forms of the genre. But some of his records came my way, and I’m always open to a new experience or three.

Jewels of Thought (1969)

I didn’t get what I expected on a few different levels. “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum Allah” surprised me both with its occasional vocals as well as its fairly solid structure. Certainly at one point Sanders’ saxophone breaks free of the band and rockets off in its own direction, a rogue, brightly-burning firework that shoots off from the pack, corkscrews around and around, screeching and running hot until it ultimately explodes.

The two-part “Sun In Aquarius”, however, is very much what I expected, more of a free jazz vibe with Sanders’ sax solos sounding tormented, like an animal caught in a trap. That’s not to say it’s entirely devoid of foundation, at times the players coming back into focus and following a more sonically recognizable pattern. When it breaks loose though, baby it breaks loose.

Pharoah (1977)

Every collector dreams of the “score”. For many of us it’s about finding that item you’ve coveted for so long that the wanting has almost become a companion. Usually if you do come across it, the person who owns it knows the value and you end up paying dearly for it. The other kind of score is getting your hands on a valuable piece of wax for a song. I experienced the former last year by getting a copy of Þeyr’s Þagað Í Hel. I experienced the latter a few months back when a collection that came to me included this hidden gem, Pharoah. It’s the kind of thing bound to drive Pharoah fans crazy, since if I’m being honest I didn’t even know who Sanders was before I started working through these boxes of records. There hasn’t been an official, non-bootleg release on vinyl since 1978, and even the 1996 CD reissues go for a pretty penny.

Pharoah is more subdued than Jewels of Thought, quieter and more chill. “Harvest Time” is the track that gets the most attention, and understandably so. Taking up the entire A side it actually feels like two distinct songs, both dreamy as they wander through a cloud of incense smoke, every now and again being brought above the surface by Pharoah’s sax – so beautiful.

“Love Will Find A Way” immediately introduces vocals, which had been completely absent from “Harvest Time”, though they only hang around for a bit before giving way to the music. I read a blurb today that indicated this record wasn’t well regarded when it came out and in fact was compared to the work of Carlos Santana – and I believe “Love Will Find A Way” is the reason for that comparison, because the middle portion could easily fit onto a Santana album and no one would think twice.

Love Will Find a Way (1978)

It’s hard to believe that this came out only a year after Pharoah. Love Will Find A Way follows the subtlety and dreamy grooves of Pharoah with, frankly, a much more straight-forward smooth jazz sound. Of course there are Pharoah flourishes found throughout, but the record remains much more approachable than Jewels Of Thought.