Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pharoah Sanders: Karma

Born Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1940, this explosive and spiritually-minded tenor saxophonist received the name "Pharoah" as a play off of his first name and as a reference to the Egyptian themes that marked the work of one of his first bosses, the otherwordly but highly influential pianist Sun Ra.

Sanders became a fixture in the "new thing," or the "avant garde," or the "free jazz" movement that coalesced in New York during the middle 1960s.  He recorded his first album as a leader for the small, but important, label ESP-Disk in 1964 and gained the attention of saxophone titan John Coltrane, who asked him to join his band the following year.  For the remaining two years of Coltrane's life, Sanders was a major part of his evolving sound, which moved into freer and more spiritually intense territory and garnered him, and Sanders, much notoriety, frequently negative.

Like Trane, Sanders was unmoved by the concerns of critics and others that their music was angry noise.  Instead, Sanders continued to develop his dissonant, multiphonic and searching style, while also demonstrating, although this was usually downplayed by critics, that he had a keen ear for lyrical playing.  He also pursued the spiritual side of his music, which played well in the tenor of the times during the latter 1960s.

After Coltrane's death, Sanders entered into a fertile and quite successful period, in which he released several excellent albums on Trane's label, Impulse!  His first album for that label, Tauhid, will be featured on this blog in the future, but the next release was Karma, recorded in mid-February 1969.  Making an explicit link to Trane's 1964 masterpiece, A Love Supreme, Sanders utilized the bass theme from that record to underpin his own best-known work, the nearly 33-minute "The Creator Has a Master Plan." 

Where the Trane record was generally solemn, stately and restrained, Sanders' "Creator" largely starts off that way, but about half way through begins to move in a powerful fashion towards an ecstatic state, featuring his overblowing in the upper register, while pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, later renowned for his funk-influenced workouts, plays beautifully in conjunction with James Spaulding's flute, Julius Watkins' French horn, the double bass work of the excellent Richard Davis and the always impressive Reggie Workman.  Showing Sanders' strong interest in African-derived sounds, drummer William Hart and percussionist Nathaniel Bettis add a great deal of texture and color. 

Also of note, though not perhaps to everyone's taste, is the vocalizing of Leon Thomas, who had been a singer for Count Basie earlier in the sixties, but came to embrace the freer music of Sanders and others.  While Thomas highlighted his lyrics calling for peace and reflection on the creator and his works in the earlier portions of "Creator," he turns to a creative and quite impressive yodeling style as the song builds in intensity after about 18 minutes and he and Sanders yodel and scream together for lengthy passages in what may be one of the most powerful moments on record anywhere.

For those attuned to giving "The Creator as a Master Plan" over a half hour of concentrated listening and attention, the experience can be truly uplifting and transcendent.  The nonet's synchronicity and empathy is remarkable, particularly in that latter half as the work moves closer and closer to a trance-like state. 

The album concludes with a mellow five-and-a-half minute paean to nature and the creator called "Colors."  Again, the lyrics are clearly of the time, as with "Creator," and may seem anachronistic to modern, jaded minds, but, then again, the sincerity and passion with which Thomas vocalizes and the band plays are affecting.  After the yearning intensity of "Creator," the peacefulness of "Colors" seems a totally appropriate way to end a phenomenal record, perhaps the high point of Sanders' long and varied career.

After releasing several great albums with Impulse!, Sanders recorded less frequently and with less notice during the 1970s and 1980s.  His partnership with producer and bassist Bill Laswell, starting around 1990, however, provided a revival of creativity and recognition.  The epitome of their work may well have been the incredible Sonny Sharrock album, Ask the Ages, to be covered here later, as well as an awesome record with gnawa musician, Mahmoud Gania, thorugh Laswell's Axiom imprint in 1994--another album to be highlighted here some day.

YHB had the chance to see Pharoah Sanders play at Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood during his early 1990s renaissance.  He played beautiful ballads as well as some of the spiritually powerful playing that made him famous and left a great impression with his soloing and the solid playing of his band.  His music is definitely worth discovering for those inclined towards adventurous music.

Pharoah Sanders:  Karms (Impulse! 1969)

1.  The Creator Has a Master Plan  32:45
2.  Colors  5:37

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