There are enough enthusiasts and experts in jazz to tell the story of Pharoah Sanders (born Farrell Sanders) in detail, to run through the many recordings he made before his recent death at 81. I wouldn’t claim that knowledge, or even interest. Occasionally I have ‘side-stepped’ into jazz and found myself in some interesting worlds. Pharoah Sanders was a player I felt I could recommend to my late-twenties daughter because his work occasionally touched the nexus where soulful jazz met modern R&B. And I hoped she might hear a little of what I heard.
It only just struck me what it meant that he came of jazz-age in the 1960s, by which time jazz had splintered into numerous sub-genres, from easy listening with a latin rhythm, to two hundred notes per minute explosions that defied easy melodic understanding. In between this chat-up muzak and sonic fury were the artists who were influenced by the age of Aquarius, the opening of minds, running parallel to rock’s expansions in solos and set lengths; there were hippy jazzers, one of whom it could be argued was Pharoah.
However hard he blew there always seemed a bittersweet element to his playing. If John Coltrane presented a frightening world of colour clashes, intimations of the darkness at the end of human life, Sanders always presented wonder and seemed to inspire it in his fellow performers. Listen to his version of Coltrane’s Ole where he wrestles and kung fu’s the notes but retains majesty, even as his sax morphs into full throated screams, we feel we are being invited into a wild dance. There’s a smile, a nod, a wink, a welcome. If you’re brave enough.
Finally, a quick word about his last, gorgeous collaboration with Floating Points (Promises), the kind of dream cross-over album which will live on for decades, on which he still sounds like an ethereal explorer, someone who knows the way, further than most of us have gone, but, still, not all the way. Now he’s actually left his body it may be that some of the questions he expressed in his music he might find answered. For some of us, still waiting, the questions he asked are answers in themselves.
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