Free-jazz icon Pharoah Sanders returns to Pittsburgh
Regarding legendary tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, avant-garde jazz's tragic figure Albert Ayler once expounded: "[John Coltrane] was the father, Pharoah was the son, I am the Holy Ghost."
But K. Mensah Wali, artistic director of the Kente Arts Alliance, bringing Mr. Sanders to the August Wilson Center this Saturday, has a more personal reason for being inspired by the clean-living saxophonist.
"In 1969, I was a freelance photographer, and I went to Ohio [on tour] with Pharoah. One morning I walked into their room and Pharoah, [singer] Leon Thomas and their road manager were standing on their heads. I asked what they were doing, and later we got into a conversation about yoga.
"They introduced me to vegetarianism and astrology and herb teas," Mr. Wali continues. "The following week I stopped eating meat, and haven't eaten any since 1969. Pharaoh's one of the people responsible for my living the kind of lifestyle I do."
- Where: August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown.
- When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
- Tickets: $20-$30; 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org. Sold out, but some limited tickets may be available at the door.
Attending Mr. Sanders' concert might not turn you into a vegetarian, but it'll be an extremely rare experience for Pittsburghers, who haven't seen him since the long-defunct Jazz Mondays series in the early '80s.
By that time, the Little Rock native had already established himself as one of the giants of free jazz. In 1964, he debuted as a leader on ESP-Disk, the hallowed indie champion of avant-jazz. Joining John Coltrane's band later that year, Mr. Sanders appeared on the group's most progressive recordings such as "Om," abandoning bebop's swing and melodicism for a totally freewheeling approach to sound, which some called "The New Thing" or "Fire Music," but came to be known generally as free jazz.
Mr. Sanders himself trailblazed some of the most landmark albums of the free-jazz era on the forward-thinking Impulse! label: "Tauhid" (which included the amazing lineup of pianist Dave Burrell, bassist Henry Grimes and guitarist Sonny Sharrock), "Karma," "Deaf Dumb Blind," "Black Unity" and "Thembi." It was quite a track record for an artist who thought he'd be playing the clarinet.
"I wasn't even thinking about sax," he recalls from his home in Los Angeles. "The clarinet was my instrument through high school, since I saw the Benny Goodman story. But I never heard a clarinetist play in Little Rock. To think about working in that town, I either had to play alto or tenor sax, so I could play in the blues bands."
Mr. Sanders has always said he'll never settle for being a jazz musician, because his background and interests are too diverse -- in the late '70s, he made a foray into radio-friendly "Quiet Storm" smooth R&B on "Love Will Find A Way," which featured vocalist Phyllis Hyman. And back in Little Rock, even bebop like Charlie Parker was hard to come by. "The only jazz player around was my band teacher, who played bebop, and I learned by listening to him. He would even rearrange John Philip Sousa to be more interesting than a straight-up march."
Mr. Sanders had been steeped in the sounds of Ornette Coleman's "The Shape of Jazz to Come" (1959) and "Free Jazz" (1960) by the time he met Coltrane. "I joined [Coltrane] to make some money. I had been playing free for a long time. I wanted to be an all-around musician to get some jobs reading music and some jobs playing free. You have to do a little bit of everything."
Mr. Sanders assures me that the myths about his nickname "Pharoah" (his given name is Farrell) are false -- it didn't come from space traveler Sun Ra or from the music criticism of poet/playwright Amiri Baraka. "It was just a matter of paperwork. When I joined the union in New York City, they had a space for the artist's name, so I just put [Pharoah] down."
With track titles such as "Morning Prayer," "Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord," "Astral Travelling" and "The Creator Has a Master Plan," and broad-based references to Abrahamic, Buddhist and New Age theosophies, Mr. Sanders' music has gone through periods of deep spirituality. "Karma," in 1969, has especially evoked the same kind of shamanistic and transcendental descriptions applied to the '60s Flower Power movement and gurus from Timothy Leary to the Maharishi.
"I just feel like music is a very spiritual thing anyway," he explains. "I just play what I feel and nothing is added. I can't just play something and say, 'This is spiritual and this isn't.' It's something that you have inside, however that passion manifests itself."
By the '80s and '90s, classics like the side-length "Creator" had secured a vast influence, sampled in hip-hop and acid-jazz tunes. "Blues for John Coltrane," an album Mr. Sanders recorded with McCoy Tyner, won a Grammy, and he worked with master Gnawa musician Mahmoud Gania, while entering dub-laden realms with bassist-producers Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble. Ten years later, he engaged in "Spirits," a multi-ethnic match with percussionists Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph. Despite all of this varied activity, he complained in an interview on the All About Jazz site that it was hard to find steady work.
"I think some of it was just my fault," he told me, "because you need an agent or somebody that can find work for you. I think a lot of musicians have this problem right now. I'm not a [material] person. Although I need support, my whole point is to keep learning and practicing. If money comes, fine, but if it doesn't, I just love to play the music."
In the past decade, however, a resurgence of interest in free-jazz, and Mr. Sanders' accomplishments in particular, has afforded him a few more opportunities, such as playing at Lincoln Center, an honor usually reserved for Wynton Marsalis' cadre of neo-boppers. He also reworked "Creator" for the Japanese label, Venus. "We were on the road in Tokyo, and I was asked if I would do a record," he recalls. "It was kind of an overnight decision."
For quite a while, most of his public appearances have been with pianist William Henderson, whose collaborations with Mr. Sanders stretch far beyond their 1987 "Prayer Before Dawn" duo album on Theresa Records. "I met [William] in 1959, and I've known him ever since we used to play at the house and run over some tunes. I feel like he's the kind of person who tries to better his life -- he's into health and meditation. He's such a good person. I'm not saying that he has to play like me, but I love what he's doing, and that's important."
On Saturday, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Sanders will be joined in a quartet by storied Pittsburgh drummer Roger Humphries and bassist Dwayne Dolphin (who, according to Wali, has worked with Mr. Sanders in the past). Mr. Sanders wishes for more high-end work in the States. "If I don't get it, I have to go elsewhere, like Europe or some other place where they want to hear my music. I would like to play the colleges and high schools here."
His move to the West Coast was a matter of convenience ("I got married, so that's the reason why I'm out here"), with Mr. Sanders openly admitting that he still prefers New York City. "It just feels dry out here in the desert. The music doesn't move enough, or maybe I'm so used to being in a place that's very cultural. Living in New York City is like going to a university -- you learn more there."
At the age of 70, Mr. Sanders still expresses a desire to play with musicians from other countries ("especially great drummers") but is also expanding his horizons into the visual arts, having been a painter on and off. "I did an exhibition at the Village Vanguard, and had my paintings right there on the bandstand. I got a good review on it at the time, and someone suggested to me that I should do it more often. I haven't done anything like that since, but I guess I could -- I just haven't thought enough about it."
First Published November 11, 2010 12:00 am