The Cosmos Is Still Catching Up to Pharaoh Sanders' Earliest Records
Anthology Recordings is reissuing three of the spiritual jazz great's first albums, released in a prolific stretch in the late 60s and early 70s that has provided a spark for the genre's greatest minds ever since.
Phtoo courtesy of Anthology Recordings
“‘Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost.” — Albert Ayler
There’s no greater testament to Pharoah Sanders’ once-in-a-generation talent than John Coltrane’s embrace of the fellow tenor saxophone player. But to understand Coltrane’s appreciation of Sanders, it’s helpful to trace back a few years before the former embraced the latter as a worthy collaborator.
December 9, 1964 is a historic date for jazz aficionados. On that winter day, at a studio in New Jersey, Mr. Giant Steps himself, along with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Drums on drums, legendarily cut A Love Supreme in a single, day-long session. The record, a monumental collection showcasing jazz’s present and future, also represented a subtle shift in Coltrane’s approach.
After the release of A Love Supreme in 1965, said shift occurred, an eventually seismic event that changed the landscape of ‘60s music and the future of jazz. Coltrane found the cosmos—he embraced the otherworldly obsession otherwise forwarded at the time by the likes Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman. Coltrane’s full-on immersion into this avant-spiritual version of jazz resulted in the recruitment of two additional tenor saxophone players hip to this scene in his post- A Love Supreme band: Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders.
Sanders’ initial interest in what became known as free jazz world can be traced back to his own tenure in Sun Ra’s band, during his early days in New York. As a twenty-something barely scraping by, Farrell Sanders was given his musical name by the space-alien supercomposer, who often gave Sanders a place to stay while he was struggling to make a living playing in R&B groups. Sanders joined Coltrane’s band two years after he departed from Sun Ra’s orbit, and the group released Ascension in February of 1966 and Meditations seven months later.
But it was Coltrane’s 40-minute, three-track live album, Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, functions, in a way, as Sanders’ origin story. The young star, not yet 30 years old, goes lick for lick with the most popular jazz saxophone player in the world...and holds his own. Sanders’ performance on the record, released in December of 1966, is his last truly notable collaboration with Coltrane. A month prior to that performance, Sanders went into the studio with his own band, and recorded his first LP Tauhid for the esteemed label Impulse!. Inclusion in that roster alone was a sign of an impending rise for any young player, the so-called “house that ‘Trane built,” was one of the preeminent imprints—along with Blue Note, Columbia, and Riverside—responsible for the mainstreaming of avant-garde jazz in the 1960s.
Reissued on November 10 on Anthology Recordings, three of the records from Sanders’ Impulse! years—Tauhid, along with Jewels of Thought (1969), and Deaf Dumb Blind (1970)— providing valuable insight in this era of Sanders’ career explorations. Tauhid, last released in 1980 as an LP, has been a long sought after item for fans of Sanders and collectors of jazz alike and now, thankfully, it’s widely available again. The record begins with the overwhelming force of “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt,” a track that moves from free noise, to ambience, to a straightforward jazz tune, to avant-squawks, and back to a beautiful, funky coherence towards over the course of its sixteen-minute run time.
Flanked by a rhythm section featuring Henry Grimes on bass and Roger Blank on drums, Sanders treats his horn like a chess board, moving across his instrument, up and down, diagonally, and backwards. Tauhid is a perceptive insight into Sanders’ mission, balancing jazz’s studious technical aspects with a contemplative verve that lends his playing a striking looseness. It’s in this balance that Sanders has remained an inspiration for the modern incarnations of spiritual jazz. Sanders’ style is at once both deconstructive and innovative. Taking the tenants of jazz, he works backwards, stripping its tropes bare and rebuilding the genre in his own image. The playing strikes a balance, constantly driving yet stripped-down in its search for a capital-t Truth.
The album’s second half begins with “Japan,” a slow-moving hymn featuring singing from Sanders and a guitar line from Sonny Sharrock that wouldn’t sound out of place on Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House—its bare, spindly tones feel more familiar now than they did when they were released release. The song, just under three and a half minutes long, is almost shocking in its simplicity. Here, especially, Albert Ayler’s notion of Coltrane, Sanders, and himself forming a holy trinity of jazz music begins to crystallize. Sanders offered a more accessible strain of Ayler’s free-jazz freakouts, and a wild, untamed side of Coltrane’s wanderings towards outer realms. Sanders was working in a style of jazz out-there enough for the most adventurous of listeners, but in control of his vision to such a thorough degree that even the most casual of jazz fans could find a lick, a melody, or a solo to latch onto.
Jewels of Thought, released two years later, is more accessible than its predecessor, and also comes with the heavy burden of being released the same year as Karma, which features Sanders’ most famous track to date, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Karma was recorded at the beginning of ‘69, while the Jewels of Thought band hit the studio towards the end of the year in October. The latter, though never reaching the ecstatic highs of “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is still incredibly engaging and at times, downright playful—a nice change of pace from Sanders’ more serious compositions.
It’s not totally outlandish to make an argument that “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah’s” finale—about ten minutes in, when Sanders’ horn comes roaring into the foreground after a relaxing vocal meditation on religion and peace—is almost as impactful as “The Creator’s” peak. It’s a smaller-scale piece, but the piano line, Sanders’ surprisingly gorgeous voice singing, “Bring your bells of peace/ Let loving never cease,” and the drums’ tumbling-down-a-staircase experimentalism gives the track a dynamism unrivaled in its play between the avant-garde and mainstream. Sanders’ approach remained shockingly new—as it does to this day—in his constant play between the abstract and the concrete. His music was tethered by a long leash, given enough slack to explore the outer ranges of jazz’s borders, but always pulled back into this earthly realm. It’s a balance very few jazz composers were striking in the 1970s, and this philosophy has begun to reemerge as modern jazz’s more adventurous performers have risen to prominence.
The last of the reissues, Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun), was released in 1970 and features mostly different players from Jewels of Thought, although the legendary Lonnie Liston Smith sticks around on piano as does Cecil McBee on bass. Deaf Dumb Blind takes influence from Fela Kuti and polyrhythmic instrumentation prevalent during that era, featuring a rhythm sections that moves at a quick pace, allowing for Sanders and alto saxophone player Gary Bartz to control the pace of the music with their varied melodic attacks. Whereas Sanders’ early records displayed a varied approach to compositional style—often employing a rise-fall-rise-fall song structure—the album’s title track is full-throttle for its entire 21-minute duration.
Sanders’ career arc can be loosely tied to his affiliation with Impulse!, putting out seven records on the label between 1971 and 1974, before taking three years off. His late ‘70s and early ‘80s career features highlights, 1980’s Journey to the One is epic in scope and ambition, but before a recent late-career resurgence, the decades following his Impulse! years were ones of unjust neglect considering his outsized impact on the jazz landscape. With time, however, the genre has bent back towards his vision, reverberating in the modern iteration of the genre with an impact as important as Coltrane and Davis.
As modern jazz moves outward from the traditional signifiers of the genre, Sanders’ style has emerged in numerous iterations of jazz. He’s a key reference for someone like Kamasi Washington, but his impact is as apparent in the electronic-jazz meld of someone like Anenon, or Josef Leimberg, whose new LP, Astral Progressions, reads like a nod to Sanders’ importance. The Epic, Washington’s three-hour solo debut, blends Sanders’ meditative maximalism with the melodies of Coltrane, the recording techniques of LA’s electronic scene (the album was released on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label), and the psychedelic wildness of ‘70s Miles Davis. Washington’s music is highly spiritual, and very few interviews with the musician are done without him mentioning Sanders’ outsized impact on his playing, and jazz in general.
These reissues come at a time when jazz as a whole is being discovered by an entirely new audience. His music was too aggressively experimental to be mentioned with the standard albums used as an entry point (Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, etc.), and not quite weird enough catch the ears of listeners in it just for the freakouts. Sanders has always been floating around the periphery, an insider’s secret better left untainted. As the genre continues to grow and gain more casual fans, Sanders’ impact will only continue to be recognized on a mainstream level, by fans of jazz and fans of the offshoot genres Sanders’ vision is being celebrated in. But that’s not because jazz is moving backwards, regressing to the sounds of the ‘70s. Sanders was just so ahead of his time that we’re only beginning to catch up.