Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Sanders, Pharoah (Farrell)

Tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders has built his career on showcasing the complete voice of the saxophone with all its abrasion and grace. Harmonically fertile, Sanders calls upon the visceral and cerebral qualities of music to create his original voice in jazz.

During his career, Sanders has used nontraditional forms to pursue uncommon harmonic textures. Beginning with his association with fellow iconoclast tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, Sanders was able to find acceptance as a performer, as well as through his own groups.

Farrell Sanders was born on October 13, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was born into a musical family, with his mother teaching private music lessons and his father teaching music in the public school system. He began to play the drums in his high school band, then studied the baritone horn, clarinet, flute and tuba. In 1959, Sanders began to play the tenor saxophone.

In the beginning, Sanders concentrated his playing on rhythm and blues, and performed vocalists Bobby “Blue” Bland and Junior Parker in Little Rock and touring for a brief time with a band called “The Thrillers.” Sanders’ high school band teacher Jimmy Cannon encouraged him to listen to jazz, and introduced him to the work of saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker an d John Coltrane. To young to enter nightclubs, Sanders would sneak in to observe local talent.

Upon graduation, Sanders moved to California to study commercial art at Oakland Junior College, living with nearby relatives. While attending college, Sanders performed in local rhythm and blues clubs, where he realized that music was his true passion. While in Oakland, obtained the nickname “Little Rock.”

Sanders quickly began to play bebop and free jazz with several of the area’s premium talents including saxophonists Dewey Redman and Sonny Simmons, in addition to drummer Smiley Winters and pianist Ed Kelly.

In Oakland, Sanders met Coltrane for the first time, and the two spent time together visiting local pawnshops for different horns and mouthpieces. In the meantime, Sanders was becoming more interested in the growing avant-garde jazz scene of the early 1960s. This time saw a revisioning of the sonic possibilities of the saxophone in the wake of the new approaches being developed by Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. The iconoclasm of these musicians influenced Sanders to develop his own technique.

In 1961, Sanders left Oakland and moved to New York City where he performed in clubs and worked day jobs to make ends meet. Sanders soon began to receive attention and began performing with bandleader Sun Ra. It was Sun Ra who gave Sanders the name “Pharoah,” an altered version of his first name.

Even though Sanders performed regularly with Sun Ra throughout the early 1960s, he was living in near poverty. This situation didn’t get any better when he decided to leave the group and head out on his own. He found himself homeless and living on the street. Sanders would sometimes sleep on the subway and donate blood to make a few dollars.

In 1962, Sanders began to perform with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins.In 1963, Sanders established his first group with Higgins, pianist John Hicks and bassist Wilbur Ware. The group performed around New York, including an engagement at The Village Gate.

The same year, Sanders learned that Coltrane was performing at the Half Note and decided to wait outside the club for him. Coltrane recognized Sanders, and invited to perform with the group. In 1965, Sanders began to play regularly with Coltrane, although was not made an official member of the group.

During the two years he spent with the Coltrane group, the two formed a creative collaboration. The idea of a second tenor in the group allowed Coltrane to construct multiphonic sounds both beautiful and challenging. Sanders was featured on such albums as Ascension, Om and Live at the Village Vanguard Again!

In 1965, Sanders appeared on Coltrane’s album Meditations. On “The Father and The Son and The Holy Ghost,” the entire ensemble creates an intense atmosphere by performing with uninhibited sonic liberation. Sanders creates short and powerful back round lines that support Coltrane’s performance and further continue the chaotic nature of the song.

After Coltrane’s death in 1967 and the rise in popularity of rock music, Sanders performed for a time with pianist Alice Coltrane before striking out on his own. In 1966, he released Tauhud, his first record for Impulse Records. On “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt,”the bass, drums and percussion begin the song with a provocative improvisation that sounds like a spiritual initiation. The added component of guitarist Sonny Sharrock serves to enhance this opening passage. Sanders soon begins to chant through his flute, evoking a dramatic sense of pain. Towards the end of the song, Sanders introduces an emotional howl from the saxophone that tears apart the mystical atmosphere the song.

In 1968, Sanders contributed to the album Communications by composers Michael Mantler and Carla Bley. The record was a product of Mantler and Bley’s “Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association,” which also featured Don Cherry, pianist Cecil Taylor, guitarist Larry Coryell and tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri.

During this period, Sanders experimented with different harmonic devices on records such as 1969’s Jewels of Thought, 1971’s Thembi and 1974’s Love In Us All. In 1969, Sanders released the album Karma which included his best-known composition “The Creator Has a Master Plan;” a gripping thirty-two minute piece.

In order to achieve his sound, Sanders surrounded himself with like-minded musicians including bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Roy Haynes,violinist Michael White, vocalist Leon Thomas and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Sanders began to be attacked by critics stating that he had gone soft when they expected additional experimentation. The 1990s saw Sanders including African percussion and different ethnic harmonies to his work.

In 1991, Sanders appeared on Sonny Sharrock’s album Ask The Ages. On “Once Upon A Time,” drummer Elvin Jones creates a sparse groove, which allows Sharrock to place a simple chord progression over it. Sanders plays in unison with the chord progression while Sharrock improvises over it, in effect making the saxophone become a stunning back round line fully supporting the harmony.

In 1994, Sanders released a Coltrane tribute album, Crescent of Love, and contributed a track to the Red Hot + Cool AIDS benefit album. 1994 also saw the release of The Trance of Seven Colors, which Sanders recorded with a group of Gnawan musicians. The project was one of Sanders’ most loved and featured the track “Peace In Essaouira” which was a tribute to his late friend Sonny Sharrock.

Trance was the beginning of a collaboration with producer/bassist Bill Laswell that was continued with the album Message From Home for Verve Records. In 1998, Sanders recorded the album Save Our Children, which included the eleven-minute piece “The Ancient Sounds.”

Sanders continues to perform in festivals around the world, such as at the Melbourne Jazz Festival, where he appeared in 2007. Well into his sixties, Sanders carries on with his goal to continually develop the sound of the saxophone and of jazz itself.

Select Discography

As Pharoah Sanders

Tauhid (1966)

Karma (1969)

Jewels of Thought (1969)

Deaf Dumb Blind (1970)

Black Unity (1971)

Thembi (1971)

Pharoah (1976)

Beyond A Dream (1981)

Shukuru (1985)

Moon Child (1990)

The Trance Of Seven Colors (1994)

Save Our Children (1998)

The Creator Has A Master Plan (2003)

With Don Cherry

Symphony For Improvisers (1966)

Where Is Brooklyn? (1966)

With Alice Coltrane

A Monastic Trio (1968)

Ptah, the El Daoud (1970)

Journey In Satchidananda (1970)

With John Coltrane

Meditations (1965)

Ascension (1965)

Om (1965)

Live At The Village Vanguard Again! (1966)

Expression (1967)

The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording (1967)

With Kenny Garrett

Beyond The Wall (2006)

With Bill Laswell

With A Heartbeat

(2003)

With Sonny Sharrock

Ask The Ages

(1991)

Contributor: Eric Wendell