Trane Kept a Rollin': Pharoah Sanders is still, as his friend John Coltrane put it, dealing in energy, integrity and essences.
The Ascension of Pharoah Sanders
John Coltrane's musical and spiritual collaborator talks about a few of his favorite things
By Bill Forman
When it comes to Pharoah Sanders, three especially transcendent experiences come to mind. One was hearing him and John Coltrane pushing each other into the stratosphere on the four-CD Live in Japan set, featuring an hour-long rendition of "My Favorite Things." Another was Sanders' seemingly telepathic collaboration with Sonny Sharrock (along with Elvin Jones and Charnett Moffet) on the guitarist's final album, Ask The Ages, a 1991 masterpiece that remains a work of supreme beauty. And the third was seeing Sanders live a few years ago in Sacramento, where he managed the nearly impossible feat of getting the crowd to forget the Kings (who were in the middle of a playoff game at that moment) and pay attention to the man onstage coaxing music out of both ends of his tenor saxophone.
"Yeah, well, I try to get as much as I can out of it before I put it down and go to bed," says Sanders with a self-effacing chuckle. "I hum into it. Sing into it. Whatever, you know? But I remember that show--they had a big festival in a park, and Yancy [Taylor] came from Oakland and sat in on vibes and we had those two drummers. They were all friends of mine that I been knowin' for a long time. And they can play, you know? They just never left Sacramento!"
Sanders has never been one for restrictions, be they of genre or geography. From Little Rock, Ark., where as a teen in the '50s he played with bluesmen Junior Parker and Bobby Blue Bland, Sanders packed up his tenor and headed out to Oakland as soon as he'd finished high school. Staying with relatives and attending junior college for art and music, he gigged around town with musicians like Dewey Redman and began exploring the outer boundaries of jazz before moving, in 1962, to a decidedly less-hospitable New York City. Creativity and challenge came hand in hand as Sanders found himself living in the city's Lower East Side and playing with the likes of Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, while also going through periods of extreme poverty in which he had to pawn his horn and sleep on the subway.
That struggle payed off in 1965 when John Coltrane brought Sanders on board in time for his Ascension album, signaling an incredibly prolific and creatively unbridled period that produced some of the most groundbreaking recordings of all time. While more conservative observers may have longed for the less avant recordings of years gone by, Coltrane was not among them. He and Sanders went off on a quest to find the spiritual dimension that was so integral to African music, but largely lost in its Western counterpart.
In his biography of Coltrane, author Cuthbert Simpkins quotes the bandleader's assessment of the new colleague who would accompany him on nearly a dozen records: "Pharoah is a man of large spiritual reservoir, always trying to reach out to truth," said Coltrane, who could just as accurately have been talking about Sanders today. "He's trying to allow his spiritual self to be his guide. He's dealing, among other things, in energy, in integrity, in essences. I so much like the strength of his playing. Furthermore, he is one of the innovators, and it's been my pleasure and privilege that he's been willing to help me, that he is part of the group. ... He has will and spirit and those are the qualities I like most in a man."
Onstage, that will and spirit translated into songs that could easily top the one-hour mark--although Jimmy Garrison's willingness to take a 15-minute bass solo made the going a bit easier for the horn players.
"I don't know that I could play a song for an hour," says Sanders when asked about the 1966 concerts in Tokyo, "but Trane, I think he could play maybe two or three hours! I always wished I could be that creative, the way he was. Some people just come here with all that, you know? But I keep falling back on some of the old stuff."
Well, yes and no. When John Coltrane died a year later, Sanders and Alice Coltrane briefly continued on in a more conventional musical direction, an ironic turn of events given that Sanders--with his penchant for harmonic distortion and ventures outside the 12-tone Western scale--had been the group's edgiest player. But the intervening decades have seen him explore seemingly limitless musical directions as both bandleader and collaborator. A particularly fertile period followed his hooking up with producer Bill Laswell in the '90s; the reunion with Sonny Sharrock (who had played on Sanders' stunning 1967 album Tauhid) and a return to world music exploration soon followed.
"My experience is, you listen to a person play and hear how creative he or she can be," says Sanders when asked about his criteria for collaborators. "The discipline and all that, those are qualities that I need, but ... I look for more than just the musicianship, it's the person."
Currently living in L.A.--in body, if not in spirit--Sanders says, "I'm just passing through. I came here because my wife, she didn't want to live in New York City anymore. But I play with people from all over the world."
Sanders' upcoming plans include a performance with pianist William Henderson--who will also accompany him during his Kuumbwa gig--at Grace Cathedral as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. "We're going to do some duo things," says Sanders. "I don't know how it's going to sound myself, but that's what we're going to do. The Grace Cathedral show will be different because of the echo--we have to let that play also! So we're gonna use whatever we can use in the Grace Cathedral; whatever they got in there, we're gonna use it."
Sanders calls Northern California "like another home for me. I don't like living down here. I don't like the way they drive. It's weird."
So is the wife amenable to relocation? "She probably would, you know? Probably would. It's a little cooler, but all you need is some thick socks and some turtlenecks."
And an umbrella. "That's what I been hearing on the news," says Sanders of the record rainfalls. "But I know it's gonna be clean when I come up there. It's gonna be clean."
Pharoah Sanders plays the Kuumbwa April 20 at 7 and 9pm, $23/adv $26/door.
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