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Pharoah Sanders

Tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders was among the most important contributors to the evolution of spiritual jazz, creating emotionally complex and uncompromisingly passionate music for over 60 years. Sanders got his start playing alongside John Coltrane in the mid-'60s, just as Coltrane's playing was turning to more chaotic free jazz expressions, and Sanders carried over some of that same euphoric upheaval into his own albums. Across multiple classics he recorded for the Impulse label in the late '60s and early '70s, however, Sanders incorporated elements of world music and even more pop-adjacent vocalizations into his sometimes chaotic style, crossing over to audiences who weren't primarily jazz listeners with the poetic mysticism of 1969's Karma or the sociopolitical sentiments of 1971's Black Unity. He remained highly active throughout the '80s and '90s, his sound mellowing somewhat into patient but no less powerful form on albums like 1987's Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong. Though his output slowed in the new millennium, Sanders would continue performing and recording into his eighties, collaborating with electronic producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra on 2021's critically acclaimed album Promises. Pharoah Sanders was born Ferrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1940. Both his mother and father taught music, his mother privately and his father in public schools. His first instrument was the clarinet, but he switched to tenor sax as a high school student, under the influence of his band director, Jimmy Cannon, who also exposed Sanders to jazz for the first time. His early favorites included Harold Land, James Moody, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. As a teenager, he played blues gigs for 10 and 15 dollars a night around Little Rock, Arkansas, backing such blues greats as Bobby "Blue" Bland and Junior Parker. After high school, Sanders moved to Oakland, California, where he lived with relatives. He attended Oakland Junior College, studying art and music. Known in the San Francisco Bay Area as "Little Rock," he soon began playing bebop, rhythm & blues, and free jazz with many of the region's finest musicians, including fellow saxophonists Dewey Redman and Sonny Simmons, as well as pianist Ed Kelly and drummer Smiley Winters. In 1961, Sanders moved to New York, where he struggled. Unable to make a living with his music, he took to pawning his horn, working nonmusical jobs, and sometimes sleeping on the subway. During this period, he played with a number of free jazz luminaries, including Sun Ra, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins. Sanders formed his first group in 1963, with pianist John Hicks (with whom he would continue to play off-and-on into the '90s), bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Higgins. When the group played an engagement at New York's Village Gate, a member of the audience was John Coltrane, who apparently liked what he heard. In late 1964, Coltrane asked Sanders to sit in with his band. By the next year, he was playing regularly with the Coltrane group, although he was never made an official member of the band. Coltrane's ensembles with Sanders were some of the most controversial in the history of jazz. Their music, as represented by the group's recordings -- Om, Live at the Village Vanguard Again, and Live in Seattle among them -- represents a near total desertion of traditional jazz concepts, like swing and functional harmony in favor of a teeming, irregularly structured, organic mixture of sound for sound's sake. Strength was a necessity in that band, and as Coltrane soon realized, Sanders had it in abundance. Sanders made his first record as a leader in 1964 for the ESP label. After Coltrane's death in 1967, Sanders worked briefly with his widow, Alice Coltrane. From the late '60s on, however, he worked primarily as a leader of his own ensembles. From 1966 to 1971, he released several albums on Impulse including Tauhid (1966), Karma (1969), Black Unity (1971), and Thembi (1971). In the mid-'70s he recorded his most commercial effort, Love Will Find a Way (Arista, 1977); it turned out to be a brief detour. From the late '70s until 1987, he recorded for the small independent label Theresa. Starting in 1987, Sanders recorded for the Evidence and Timeless labels. The former bought Theresa Records in 1991 and subsequently re-released Sanders' output for that company. In 1995, he made his first major-label album in many years, Message from Home (produced by Bill Laswell for Verve). The two followed that one up in 1999 with Save Our Children. In 2000, Sanders released Spirits -- a multi-ethnic live suite with Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph. In the decades after his first recordings with Coltrane, Sanders developed into a more well-rounded artist, capable of playing convincingly in a variety of contexts, from free to mainstream. Throughout the 2000s, Sanders played the festival circuit and collaborated on record with various artists including Sleep Walker, Chicago Underground, Joey DeFrancesco, and others. In 2015, he was granted an NEA Jazz Master Award, along with Gary Burton, Wendy Oxenhorn, and Archie Shepp. It is North America's highest award for the genre. In 2020, an archival concert performance was released as Live in Paris (1975). The next year, Sanders worked with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra on an album of entirely new material called Promises. Released in March 2021, the record was met with almost universal critical praise. It proved to be the last album Sanders would release in his lifetime. Pharoah Sanders died on September 24, 2022 at his home in Los Angeles, California at the age of 81.
© Chris Kelsey /TiVo


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