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Pharoah Sanders

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Bells. Many little bells at once. Wooden mallets on a bollo w log: tap, tap, tap, thock. Cymbals. Drums. Gong? Not a gong. The man with the white beard is holding a Tibetan brass bowl in his hands, staring passively into its empty center as he strokes it with a carved stick, and this is where the low ringing originates. Rarely do we wimess anything so subüe on the main stage at the MontreuxDetroit Jazz Festival, or anywhere else in public. This is ritual. Sacred space for all to share. To celébrate the miracle of being alive on this earth. Pharoah Sanders is, for many of us, the clearest and dearest of all musicians. Clearest in visión and intention; he vowed long ago to do his part to make the world a better place by refusing to genérate negative energies, to consciously send positive vibrations into the world through saxophone, flute, human voice. A life's mission, still beautifully in progress. Pharoah is forever close to our hearts, as time and again this man has kept us f rom giving in to despair. His music a benevolent protection which stays with you, inside of you, close to the heart like nothing else. Pharoah' s manner of calling through the saxophone is one of the most instanüy recognizable sounds in all of music. Once you' ve heard it, his spreading fan of tones, this beautiful, raspy multiphonic rainbow will always reappear as an old friend, brusque and reassuring even at its wildest and most irrepressible. There are times when Pharoah roars; fire erupts as from a volcano! And somehow this sometimes gets interpreted as anger. But is a 150-foot waterfall angry? Does a thunderstorm express rage? Pharoah's is a natural voice. Every bit as peaceful or tempestuous as life on this planet is likely to be. We' re living in the troposphere, and that means changes without a letup. Pharoah is the celebrant of change; with all of tradition behind him he empowers us to face the dawns and dusks as yet to come. Farrell (Pharoah) Sanders was bom in Little Rock, Arkansas, October 13th, 1940. He carne up in an atmosphere of rhy thm and blues, sitting in at one point with Bobby Blue Bland, and by 1959 he was in Oakland, California. Ran into John Coltrane looking for saxophone mouthpieces in the pawnshops of San Francisco. Made it to New York where he "... eamed a living playing rock-and-roll while he made sessions with Don Cherry, Sun Ra and Billy Higgins." (This information comes from Valerie Wilmer's outstanding sourcebook on modern Jazz, "As Serious As Your Life," reprinted in 1992 by Serpent' s Tail Press. You can get a copy at Shaman Drum Books here in Ann Arbor.) Pharoah's recording debut as a leader ("Pharoah's First," ESP 1003-2) has finally been made available on CD. This session came together in 1964, and it's interesting to compare it with Albert Ayler's inspired work from the same year. Both saxophonists were happy to explore the largely underestimated sonic potential of their instruments, developing a whole ne w language of expression which nevertheless was rooted in gospel, rhythm and blues, and all of the traditions of Jazz. The other important parallel betwixt Albert and Pharoah is their deep-rooted spirituality . And this was what brought both of them close to John Coltrane. I'm remembering the time back in 1972, when my brother gave me his copy of Coltrane' s "Meditations" album. He looked traumatized! Like he wanted it out of his immediate vicinity. I think he'd expected something soothing and mellifluous, along the lines of Coltrane "Ballads." What happens instead when you put on "Meditaüons" is a twotenor saxophone exploratory tone-zone! "Screee-eeeeee-nah-eeeeeee-nah-eeee-naheeee" with Coltrane and Pharoah side by side, opening up some kind of a glowing doorway into eternity! Look out. My advice is to hear this recording in the same sitting as Coltrane' s "First Meditations For Quartet." That puts things in perspective. Open up and go with it. Both albums, all the way through. Loudly. But the best perspective comesof listening to alloftheColtraneSanderscollaborations. These include "Kulu Se Mama," "Ascensión," the lysergically inspired "Om," "live in Seattle," "Live in Japan," "Cosmic Music," and "Expression." Each album is a deep search for fijrther ways in which to communicate and maybe transcend all that's been said so Lar. Or maybe getting in touch with some ancient shamanic modes, the stream-of-consciousness speakingin-tongues. Nothing contrived. Perhaps "Meditations" is still the best term for all of these recordings. What speaks to me is their sincerity. When Coltrane made the "Ascensión" album, inspired by the group improvisatory experiments of Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, he telephoned Ayler and said "I recorded an album and found that I was playing just like you." Ayler responded: "No man, don't you see, you were playing like yourself. You were just feeling what I feel and were just crying out for spiritual unity." Coltrane died in 1967, Ayler undersuspiciouscircumstances in 1970. WTiole generations of musicians have since come up under their combined influences. Ayler' s most devout modem interpreter is the very accomplished David Murray, whose "Flowers For Albert" sounds fresh and new with each and every listening. And Pharoah? You need to follow Pharoah asaleader. Start with "Tauhid," fromNovember of 1966 (Impulse records). This is a masterpiece which unfolds gradually. Ancient dreams. Ancestor reverence, chanting, introspection, and collective improvisation. Sonny Sharrock is in here, doing strange things to his guitar. I think the critics complained about this when it first carne out. Today it's plausible for me to recommend it for inclusión in every household record collection in North America. Beautiful succession of albums for the Impulse label in the 1970s: "Karma," "Thembi," "Jewels of Thought," "Wisdom Through Music," "Live at the Rllmore East," "Village of the Pharoahs," "Black Unity," thesearejustafew of the many lovely and thought-provoking offerings irom Pharoah duringoneofhisprimes. Vocalist Leon Thomas was an unforgettable presence, articulating prayers for peace and happiness throughout the land. Then too there were the many imaginative grooves Pharoah laid down for the There sa record label during the 1980s, including a wild live recording from the WestCoast, where he unveiled the electrifying "You've Got to Have Freedom" and "Blues for Santa Cruz." Now the most recent recordings have shown us just how wide Pharoah's range extends. First and foremost he's shone as a master interpreterof ballads. "Moonchild" "Journey to the One" and "Crescent With Love" - these albums give us a gentle Pharoah, playing what might be called standards, although there' s nothing standard about this individual, not for a minute. Coltrane's "After the Rain" becomes a transcendental miracle, every bit as beautiful as the original, and faithful to all of the attending spirits. If you'd like a good dose of the volcanic Pharoah in a fresh and feisty atmospheric realization, try "Solomon's Daughter," a sion released in 1994 under the leadership of drummer Franklin Kiermyer. With the exception of a calm, six minute version of Coltrane's "Peace on Earth," this is a blisteringdate.My partner Lindsay likesto crank itup! Puts her at ease, it does. A joyous, cleansing magma from out the hom. "This is sane and normal," says my wife, as Pharoah rasps and roars. Sonny Sharrock, whose mature death stunned the Jazz community in 1994, featured Pharoah Sanders on his 1991 album "Ask The Ages" (Axiom records). Included is a stirring jam which bears Pharoah's nickname from long ago: "Litüe Rock". With Elvin JonesandCharnettMoffett, this might be one of the deepest albums of the decade. It certainly shows Pharoah in fine foim, as grounded and beautiful as ever. 1994 gave us a powerful collaboration between Pharoah Sanders and Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, "The Trance of Seven Colors" (also on Axiom). Recorded in Morocco, this mingles Pharoah's tenor sax with many African instruments and incantations. Pharoah's newest release as of this writing (that I've been hipped to) is on the Verve label: "Message From Home." All of our favorite elementó are here in this latest offering; the African presence is strong - there are pieces which have you singing out loud almost involuntarily - and the man with the hom is the same individual who has been stunning us with his imaginative streng th and humble sincerity for so many years. I recall seeing Pharoah at Chene Park in Detroit many moons ago. He stood with the waves of the Detroit River wafting behind him, a semi-circle of small children sitting at his feet. He smiled gently at them, in fact everyone was smiling, and then it happened: Pharoah held the tenor saxophone about a foot in front of his body and let the night wind from off the river blow into the horn. Running his fingers over the keys, Pharoah Sanders played the breeze. This I will never forget long white beard and sturdy fingers on the keys as the wind made the music come peering out the bell of the hom. blessedbe


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