Before he emerged from John Coltrane’s later groups in the middle to late 60’s the mighty Pharoah Sanders had cashed in his chips and left Little Rock Arkansas, moving to New York to seek his musical fortune. Things did not work quite the way he dreamed it would happen. Penniless and hungry, Mr. Sanders slept on park benches and under bridges until he met up with cornet-player, Don Cherry. Mr. Cherry was the first musician who took Mr. Sanders giving him a gig or two and helping the tenor saxophonist to care for his horn, which was nearly falling apart. These and other anecdotes are interspersed between the music on the 4-CD Box Set Pharoah Sanders In the Beginning 1963—1964 by way of interviews with the disc’s producer, Michael D. Anderson. This is an invaluable recording containing music of Pharoah Sanders’ first recording with Don Cherry in 1963 by Esp-Disk’s maverick impresario, Bernard Stollman. The label also put out Mr. Sanders’ first record as leader also issued as a re-mastered edition Esp-Disk as Pharoah’s First, but this is also included in this voluminous package. There is also a fabulous session with Paul Bley on piano and two of the four discs consist of Pharoah Sanders during his very seminal sessions with the great Sun Ra.
It was Ornette Coleman who once suggested that Pharoah Sanders was very likely the best tenor saxophone player in the world. But Albert Ayler hit closer to home when he suggested a Trinitarian nomenclature when he submitted that John Coltrane was the Father, Pharoah Sanders was the Son and he, Albert Ayler was the Holy Ghost. As the music develops from the first 1963 recordings to the Sun Ra sessions, a year and some later it is possible to see how this development took place. For instance, although Mr. Sanders sounds extremely sure footed and negotiated Mr. Cherry’s complex tunes he was, by his own admission, rather tentative when running down the tunes with Don Cherry, who had already developed a complex language built around the pulse of music defined by its polyphonic and polyrhythmic structures. Then by the time Mr. Sanders went through that session almost like a rite of passage he graduated into Paul Bley’s orbit before coming into his own on Pharoah’s First. It would not be an easy switch from there on to Sun Ra’s Arkestra, but Mr. Sanders had already developed his incredible honk and the gravity-defying growls as well as the sudden rushes into the upper atmosphere of the tenor saxophone as he uttered the now famous wails and shrieks and kisses made from the reed as well as hoots from the bell of the horn; poetic devices that became the mark of Mr. Sanders’ performances later in life.
Among the first musicians that Pharoah Sanders met when he came to New York was Sun Ra. Mr. Sanders was homeless and his clothes were in tatters. Sun Ra gave him a place to stay, a warm bed and some clothes. According to Mr. Sanders the pants were green with yellow stripes and he hated them, but had no choice to wear them. Another interesting fact that comes out of the interview process was that his name, “Pharoah” was chosen by Sun Ra, who encourages the young Farrell Sanders to use that name for its decorative connotations in the Egyptian ethos. Landing the gig at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with Don Cherry helped Mr. Sanders fix his horn, which was also in shambles. The gig helped cement the relationship between Mr. Sanders and Don Cherry and they continued to practice at Mr. Cherry’s house where Mr. Sanders and drummer Ed Blackwell rehearsed. The charts were complicated, with nothing written down. But the figures, entitled “Cocktail Piece” “Cherry’s Dilemma” and “Remembrance” turned out as if the group had been playing them for a long period of time. Mr. Sanders, although he followed Mr. Cherry’s lead, already shows the development of his warm deep tone. His notes are like crystals—with multi-faceted angles that glimmer as they cascade from the bell of the horn. Very soon after the first bars of both versions of “Cocktail Piece” Mr. Sanders and Don Cherry play an ostinato figure for a few bars and then the music opens up for improvisation. Here a deep bluesy groove develops and the garrulous counterpoint becomes the signature of the improvisation, until the music pirouettes and comes to a stop. It is here that Mr. Sanders’ warmth and tender notes strike a chord in the soul of the listener; almost as if to suggest that there is epic pathos in this piece. Mr. Sanders’ grasp not only of polyphony, but also polyrhythms, played at breakneck speed, is spectacular. By now Pharoah Sanders had already begun to experiment with long and dissonant soli. Although these did not flower into fruition, as they did by the time Mr. Sanders was playing in the 1965 Meditations (Impulse 1965) and later on Mr. Coltrane’s Ascension album (1965), when Mr. Sanders’ mighty blowing sessions are known to have influenced the later work that Mr. Coltrane did.
This session with Don Cherry also features the great David Izenzon on bass and J.C. Moses on drums. A true revelation on this set is the piano medley, played by Don Cherry, of Thelonious Monk tunes, where Mr. Cherry has an uncanny manner in which the cracked harmonies of Mr. Monk are quoted and played in the angular manner in which Mr. Monk was known for. This roistering session is followed by a relatively quiet, but no less jazz in advance gig and recording with the irreverent pianist Paul Bley. At the end of the recording with Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry advances his philosophy, the basis of which suggests that words cannot express music, only music can express music. This goes back to what Pharoah Sanders said about Don Cherry, where he never wrote any music but taught the big man the charts note for note, playing sequences bit by bit until the whole song was learned, before it could be improvised. This complex lesson became the basis for Pharoah Sanders’ music.
Paul Bley’s session with Pharoah Sanders came at a time when the Avant Garde almost did away with the piano. The challenge then, for Paul Bley, was to find a new way to make the piano more relevant as the horns were taking over. Mr. Bley did this by focusing on micro-tonalities on an instrument with fixed pitch and exploring the role—with brief and almost disjointed lines—in music that was being dominated by men like John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, who were deeply in the tradition and who knew to use more freedom in a logical and exciting way. This session brings Pharoah Sanders several steps closer to his own flight from the Bird’s nest; which is not a pun, but upon careful listening to Pharoah’s First reveals a Pharoah Sanders fully formed in his early style. As Paul Bley suggested, he was obsessed with creating a new relevance for the piano; a tall task after Ornette Coleman had done away with the piano. The short bent lines that croak as they race and flutter out of Pharoah Sanders’ horn is something startling, prompted no doubt by Paul Bley own bending of notes give “Generous” and “Walking with a Woman” a startling, jitterbug-like jump. Whereas “Ictus” is masterful and feels as if terror has struck the chart, beautifully maiming its polyphony with dramatic effect. Played at breakneck speed, it challenges all of the musicians to play cohesively.
Although Pharoah Sanders never seemed ill at ease with either Don Cherry on in the company of Paul Bley, the impetuses were not quite what Mr. Sanders would have felt fully comfortable. He had a mind of his own. He was raring to go. The short growling lines that darted in and out of the piano’s longer lines played by Mr. Bley was a clear indication that the moment for Mr. Sanders star to rise had come. Pharoah’s First gives the great saxophonist just that leap-off point. The manner in which Bernard Stollman, founder of Esp-Disk describes his first meeting is “ephemeral”. He calls Mr. Sanders’ demeanor brusque, even hostile. This was no doubt a reaction to folks who liked to characterise the New Thing as nonsense. Mr. Sanders had reached the dénouement of his first storied life—his introduction in to New York life and now had something to say and no one was going to take that away from him The two long charts: “Seven by Seven” and “Bethera” show Mr. Sanders breaking up the flatted fifth of bebop forever. He tramples upon the brambled and breakneck soli of that motivic impulse with the honking and wailing and squawking of his own. HIS group of Jane Getz on piano, and the power trio of Stan Foster on trumpet, William Bennett on bass and Marvin Patillo on drums to complete the quartet that sounds as if it were in the middle of a musical insurrection. Here Mr. Sanders abandons the short breathless lines and replaces them long meandering lines wrought from circular breathing; his hot breath flavouring the dramatic twists and turns of his polyphony. There is much of John Coltrane’s influence, the conception and the voice is singularly Pharoah Sanders. Every once and awhile he leaps of a plane on which he is squawking and growling his way through onto a higher plane, as if he had a sudden epiphany. Then he makes a turn which is least expected, his tenor saxophone voice a guttural human smear. Such accents make for a dramatic saxophone literature and they flow so naturally from Pharoah Sanders enchanted horn on both “Seven by Seven” and on the infinitely more beguiling “Bethera”. It is a signal that the great one has arrived and ready for the transcendental leap that he is about to take in to that rarefied realm with Sun Ra and the Arkestra.
When Pharoah Sanders first approached Sun Ra for work, he was told by His Outness that the Arkestra already had saxophonists. By 1964, however, Sun Ra had relented and Pharoah Sanders became full-fledged member of the Arkestra. This was a momentous occasion for the young tenor saxophonist. He was called up to take his place near another saxophonist new to Sun Ra’s legendary ensemble. That man was Black Harold (Harold Murray). The music on Discs 3 and 4 consist of path-breaking and mind-expanding music from the Arkestra at a concert called Four Days in December at the Judson Hall; a part of the October Revolution in Jazz. A cursory look at the call sheet on the liner booklet might suggest that the sides are heavy with anecdotal information; interviews with the musicians—Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders, but a deeper look at the Discs 3 and 4 reveal substantial music with the Arkestra travelling musically through interstellar space. The music here is sublime, with the bewitching motifs of the Arkestra devolving from out of Sun Ra’s piano and his omnipresent celeste. Meanwhile, Pharoah Sanders had a fully formed musical philosophy and he began to blow his tenor saxophone as if he was full-fledged royalty. The Arkestra meanwhile was reaching beyond the idioms as was conventionally recognisable and into the interstellar regions. It was still coming out of the low-down blues. Escape was imminent and the only place left was Space, or so said Sun Ra. On Disc 3 Sun Ra sets out his theology in a chart entitled “Dawn Over Israel” where the earthly place that exudes spirituality appears to be under a thunderous attack from the spirits up above. It would appear in this jazz pantomime that Sun Ra, a Mosaic figure comes to earth to save the nation of Israel. But rather than settle down in another earthly abode, they take the Arkestra to interstellar space. Sun Ra’s band is spectacularly rehearsed. Pharoah Sanders fit right in. His lengthy duels with Pat Patrick on baritone saxophone are mighty and all consuming. The polyrhythms are heraldic and the signification of the dawn of Africa on “The Shadow World” creates a roaring prequel and preparation for the “Second Stop is Jupiter”. Drummers, Clifford Jarvis and Jimmhi Johnson make their presence felt in a brilliant and thunderous manner.
However in the Arkestra Pharoah Sanders must wait his turn not only to be invited to play but also to solo. The horns play in unison. Being asked to step up takes until he must duel with Black Harold and Pat Patrick on the hypnotic chart first on “Discipline # 9”and then on “We Travel the Spaceways,” a long and meandering chart that wends it was like a tumbling spaceship, which is what the Arkestra was anyway—until it traverses the musical topography of space black holes and all. Disc 3 melds into Disc 4 and the inter-galactic journey continues. By the time Disc 4 is spun, The Arkestra is firing on all cylinders. Although it takes a while for the horns to register, when they do after the basses con arco soloing Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold, together with Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick have received their summons: the call to praise and worship. In many respects this is a mighty version of the Holy Rollin’ church. Even on a chart such as “Gods On Safari” the blues gives way to an abundance of spirituality as Sun Ra and the members of the Arkestra preach. Mr. Sanders has finally found his level and his new dissonances find a perfect home in the music of Sun Ra. For the rest of the concert the magnificence of Pharoah Sanders is on display both in the unison parts of the passionate pantomime as well as when he has the opportunity to preach, soloing in solitary splendour. The overtly Afri-centric nature of Sun Ra’s music—although he liked to call it Heliocentric- is overt now, when the band is in full flow. The horns and the woodwinds are noisy and almost quarrelsome and are only the percussionists and the log drummers who can prevent all-out war. When music such as this, which was, at any rate so far ahead of its time, the pathos of Sun Ra’s statement in the opening interview at the beginning of Disc 4 rings true. Black Harold is sensational on flute on “Voice of Pan Pt.1” as are the other horn players, especially Pat Patrick, whose gravitas anchor’s the horn section. Meanwhile Pharoah Sanders is building his reputation for leading the Avant Garde in his development of the language of the saxophone; something that was later usurped from him by Albert Ayler.
The ostensible looseness of Sun Ra’s music is something of a conundrum; the idea that the very cosmic dust vibrates in collusion with the Arkestra is palpable throughout the concert. This music is seminal; both for the Arkestra, which was developing its logic, its musical philology and the theology, which developed into and ascended into a rarified realm later in the history of the band. For Pharoah Sanders, however, who was the protagonist of this package, his beginnings are set in a moveable feast which he celebrates in a language and a literature that developed out of his association with John Coltrane… and much later with the likes of the Last Poets, Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, the Gnawa from Essaouria, Morocco, as well as with Bill Laswell… to become a singular voice and a harbinger of the future along with that other great tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter. However, for the recording at hand, this is a striking palimpsest, one that became a roadmap for the great Pharoah Sanders’ future. It also bears mention that fortuitously Bernard Stollman and Esp-Disk was always on hand to capture it all when it mattered most. Perhaps the greatest moment on the discs comes in the final interview—the closing comments, so to speak. Here Pharoah Sanders talks about being, not a great saxophonist, but a good human being; “become the music” that he plays: a spiritual offering to God. And that is the most humble thing one of the great musicians of this era could hope to become; something he actually grew to be although he did not know it at the time that these recordings were made.
Track List: Disc 1: Pharoah Sanders Interview -Coming To New York; Cocktail Piece (First Variation) Take 1; Cocktail Piece (First Variation) Take 2; Studio Announcement; Cherry’s Dilemma; Studio Engineer Announcement; Remembrance (First Variation); Medley: Thelonious Monk Compositions; Ornette’s Influence Pt. 1; Ornette’s Influence Pt. 2; Play Bley Interview – 1960’s Avant Garde; Generous 1 Take 1 (Setting Levels); Generous 1 (Take 2); Walking Woman Take 1; Walking Woman Take 2; Ictus; Note : After Session Conversation; Disc 2: Pharoah Sanders Interview – Musicians he performed with Pt. 1; Bernard Stollman Interview – Meeting Pharoah Sanders; Seven by Seven; Bethera; Pharoah Sanders Interview – Musicians he performed with Pt. 2; Disc 3: Pharoah Sanders Interview; Dawn Over Israel; The Shadow World; The Second Stop Is Jupiter; Discipline #9; We Travel The Spaceways; Disc 4: Sun Ra Interview – Being neglected as an artist; Gods on Safari; The Shadow World; Rocket; The Voice of Pan Pt. 1; Dawn Over Israel; Space Mates; The Voice of Pan Pt. 2; The Talking Drum; Conversation with Saturn; The Next Stop: Mars; The Second Stop is Jupiter; Pathway to the Outer Known; Sun Ra Interview – Meeting John Coltrane; Pharoah Sanders Interview – John Coltrane; Pharoah Sanders Interview – Playing at Slug’s/Max Gordon; Pharoah Sanders Interview – Closing Comments.
Personnel: Disc 1(01-03-1963): Don Cherry: cornet & piano; Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone; Joe Scianni: piano; David Izenzon: bass; J.C. Moses: drums; Disc 1 (05-25-1964): Paul Bley: piano; Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone; David Izenzon: bass; Paul Motion: drums; Disc 2 (09-27-1964): Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone; Stan Foster: trumpet; Jane Getz: piano; William Bennett: bass; Marvin Patillo: drums; Disc 3 (12-30-1964): Sun Ra: piano & celeste; Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone; Black Harold (Harold Murray): flute & log drums; Al Evans: trumpet; Teddy Nance: trombone; Marshall Allen: alto saxophone, flute & percussion; Pat Patrick: baritone saxophone; Alan Silva: bass; Ronnie Boykins: bass; Clifford Jarvis: drums; Jimmhi Johnson: drums; Art Jenkins: space voice; Disc 4 (12-31-1964): Sun Ra: piano & celeste; Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone; Black Harold (Harold Murray): flute & log drums; Al Evans: trumpet; Teddy Nance: trombone; Marshall Allen: alto saxophone, flute & percussion; Pat Patrick: baritone saxophone; Alan Silva: bass; Ronnie Boykins: bass; Clifford Jarvis: drums; Jimmhi Johnson: drums; Art Jenkins: space voice.
Label: ESP-Disk | Release date: June 2012
Website: pharoahsanders.wordpress.com | Buy music on: amazon
About Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders possesses one of the most distinctive tenor saxophone sounds in jazz. Harmonically rich and heavy with overtones, Sanders’ sound can be as raw and abrasive as it is possible for a saxophonist to produce. Yet, Sanders is highly regarded to the point of reverence by a great many jazz fans. Although he made his name with expressionistic, nearly anarchic free jazz in John Coltrane’s late ensembles of the mid-’60s, Sanders’ later music is guided by more graceful concerns.
The hallmarks of Sanders’ playing at that time were naked aggression and unrestrained passion. In the years after Coltrane’s death, however, Sanders explored other, somewhat gentler and perhaps more cerebral avenues — without, it should be added, sacrificing any of the intensity that defined his work as an apprentice to Coltrane.
Pharoah Sanders (his given name, Ferrell Sanders) was born into a musical family. Sanders’ early favorites included Harold Land, James Moody, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. Known in the San Francisco Bay Area as “Little Rock,” Sanders 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, Sanders took to pawning his horn, working non-musical 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.
In 1964, Coltrane asked Sanders to sit in with his band. The following year, Sanders was playing regularly with the Coltrane group. Coltrane’s ensembles with Sanders were some of the most controversial in the history of jazz. Their music 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 realized, Sanders had it in abundance.
Sanders made his first record as a leader in 1964. After John Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders worked briefly with his widow, Alice Coltrane. From the late ’60s, he worked primarily as a leader of his own ensembles.
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. Some of his best work is his most accessible. As a mature artist,
Sanders discovered a hard-edged lyricism that has served him well.
Great piece! Read my interview with Francisco Mora Catlett for more on Sun Ra.