Remembering the groundbreaking jazz musician gone at 81
The great saxophone player Pharaoh Sanders died on September 24th in Los Angeles, California. He was 81.
Born Farrell Sanders on October 13, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sanders switched from clarinet to tenor saxophone in high school where his talent was recognized early on – he briefly assumed the duties of band director as a student while a new band director was sought. After living with relatives in Oakland, California, the saxophonist moved to New York in 1961, where the bandleader Sun Ra encouraged him to adopt the name Pharoah. In 1965, after a brief period with The Sun Ra Arkestra, Sanders took part in John Coltrane’s recording Ascension.
In addition to Ascension, Sanders and Coltrane would record many important albums together, including Om and Live in Seattle. These collaborations with Coltrane managed to be both influential and controversial, and can require commitment on the part of listeners.
Sanders’ recordings as a leader after the death of John Coltrane can seem more welcoming, though no less searching. They clearly point toward what we’d call “World Music” today. Functional harmony returns, and new timbres are included as instruments like balophon, flute and African drums are heard.
In 1969, Sanders released Karma, which included a piece written with Leon Thomas called “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” which borrowed a musical figure from John Coltrane’s 1964 A Love Supreme. Thomas wrote uplifting lyrics and sang, in a yodeling style said to be influenced by Pygmy singing. This is a classic in the genre of what’s come to be known as“Spiritual Jazz.”
AUDIO: Pharoah Sanders “The Creator Has a Master Plan”
Perhaps unsurprisingly: as a boy, Mr. Sanders played clarinet in church. Versions of this song, heard occasionally on FM radio, and later sampled by hip hop artists, make this a rare “hit” from the Jazz avant-garde.
Pharoah Sanders collaborated to great effect with dozens of notable musicians from within and without the world of Jazz, traveled to Africa for the U.S. State Department, and in 2016 was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Sanders’ sound and vision influenced generations of musicians, many of whom are prominent leaders in Jazz now. Kamasi Washington and Lakecia Benjamin are but two examples.
In 2021, the album Promises was released by Sanders, the electronic musician Floating Points, and the London Symphony Orchestra. This uniquely beautiful recording sounds like nothing else, and has been met with near universal acclaim by critics.
Pharoah Sanders was a towering and revered figure in Jazz, with an unforgettable sound on tenor saxophone. He brought great power and beauty to the art, taking part in some of the most courageous and uncompromising recordings in the Jazz canon.