Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


SANDERS, Pharoah

(b Ferrell Sanders, 13 October 1940, Little Rock AR) Reeds, leader. Studied piano, drums, clarinet; turned to sax and flute at 16; played with R&B bands; to West Coast '59 on music scholarship, played with Dewey Redman, others; to NYC '62, worked with Sun Ra, Rashied Ali, and was influenced by Albert Ayler. Made quintet First Album '64 on ESP, a promising debut, two long tracks with Jane Getz playing interesting electric piano; sextet Tauhid on Impulse '66 was just getting started when the record was over. He played with John Coltrane '66-7, then Alice Coltrane; formed his own band '69 including keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith and vocalist/lyricist Leon Thomas (b Amos Leon Thomas Jr, 4 October 1937, East St Louis IL; d 9 May 1999 in Brooklyn, suffering from leukemia; he changed spelling to 'Leone' for a while '76). Sanders pursued Coltrane's spiritual quest at a somewhat more accessible level of intensity than where Coltrane had left off, improvising with romantic lyricism over a three-octave range, alternatively screaming emotionally on his horn, occasionally singing or chanting off-key vocally, his best work emotionally powerful. Thomas had sung with Count Basie, now used scat devices and also an evocative yodelling technique which he had learned from Central African traditional music. Album Izipho Zam ('My Gifts') '69 on Strata-East included Cecil McBee, guitarist Sonny Sharrock, Chief Bey on African drums, three other percussionists, multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson on tuba (b 7 August 1941, Montgomery AL), Sonny Fortune on additional reeds. (Fortune, d 25 October 2018 aged 79, went on to play with Thomas, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and others. He was on a bandstand with Jones in Manhattan the night Coltrane passed away.) Karma '69 on Impulse used a more conventional nine-piece group, including 'The Creator Has A Master Plan', a famous long set-piece with lyrics by Thomas, made the top 200 pop LPs. Another Impulse LP combined '69-70 sessions, the first with Thomas before he left the group; Smith also left before the fourth Sanders LP on Impulse, sextet Thembi '71, was the second to make the pop chart. (Thomas also recorded with Mary Lou Williams, Roland Kirk, Oliver Nelson, Santana, others; see Smith's entry.)

Black Unity and Live At The East '71, Wisdom Through Music and Village Of The Pharoahs '72, Elevation and Love Is In Us All '73 were all on Impulse with changing personnel. Harvest Time '76 on India Navigation was a small-group set; Love Will Find A Way '77 on Arista was his third chart entry with the largest group yet: 23 pieces including three keyboardists plus singers. Beyond A Dream '78 on Arista was made live at Montreux. Six tracks from '78 were combined on an Evidence CD with others from '92 by Oakland pianist Ed Kelly, whose solo and quintet tracks show him to be a fine regional player, but the earlier tracks had the avant-gardist Sanders playing jazz lite, drowned by a synthesizer. Journey To The One '80 (with Bobby McFerrin among vocalists, 17 pieces incl. tabla, synth, koto, sitar, harmonium etc) and Rejoice '81 (tracks with various lineups including 'Highlife', 'Nigerian Juju Life', others with Bobby Hutcherson, Elvin Jones etc) were two-disc sets, Live and The Heart Is A Melody '82 single LPs, all on Teresa (one of Bob Thiele's labels; see his entry), some later on Evidence CDs. The latter was the first appearance on a Sanders record of William Henderson on piano; much of this work was satisfying for Sanders fans as he came to terms with the Coltrane legacy while remaining himself. Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong '87 was released on various Thiele labels including a Signature CD. The Impulse era far behind, and having had a few 'hit' albums in what passed for the avant-garde in the '60s (which has been called 'free jazz for the masses'), Sanders seemed to lose his way a bit; Shukuru '85 (later on Evidence) was a weak album, relying too much on Henderson's synths, but Oh Lord was a blast from the past, with Thomas back on three tracks and acoustic Henderson. Africa '87 on Timeless was a worthy quartet outing with John Hicks on piano, Sanders seeming to settle down and find himself, and everybody making powerful contributions. A Prayer Before Dawn was an unexciting ballad album, again with too much mushy synth; Moon Child '89 on Timeless was still lethargic (without the synth); but Welcome To Love '90 on Timeless had the ballads drenched in emotion, Sanders concentrating on the sound of his horn and pianist Henderson completely supportive: one of his best in a long while, perhaps escaping at last the long shadow of Coltrane. Aggressive producer Bill Laswell put Sanders back together with guitarist Sonny Sharrock on Sharrock's Ask The Ages '91, then with a band of Moroccans chanting and clapping on the less successful The Trance Of Seven Colors '94, both on Axiom. Two-CD Crescent With Love '92 on Evidence was a quartet with Henderson in a sincere and often beautiful tribute to Coltrane, pleasing both Sanders and Coltrane fans.

But 20 years later, at age 80, Sanders was still being himself. A five-year partnership with elecronic producer and musician Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd) led to a film, Promises: Through Congress, a collaboration with Shepherd, director Trevor Tweeton and artist Jule Mehretu, screened online in April 2021 by the Broad Museum in Los Angeles and the Whitney in New York, featuring Mehretu's art, especially the title painting. Alexander Leissle wrote in the TLS: 'Sequenced as nine movements but working as one continuous uninterrupted piece, it is a gorgeous and intoxicating product of intergenerational collaboration (by the time Shepherd was born, Sanders had 21 albums under his belt).' Some people never grow old.