I almost interviewed Pharoah Sanders once. Derek Walmsley, my editor at The Wire, asked me to try and set up a conversation in mid-2014. I didn’t know if Sanders had a manager or a publicist or any kind of team, so I reached out to Rob Mazurek, who had worked with him as part of his Chicago/São Paulo Underground project. (The twin live albums — one CD, one LP — they made together, Spiral Mercury and Primative Jupiter, are some of the saxophonist’s most rewarding late work.) Mazurek agreed to facilitate, and gave me a phone number to call, which I did. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to me, Sanders hated doing interviews. He just didn’t like talking about his art. We had a conversation of no more than 10 minutes, during which he was kind and friendly, but utterly unrevealing. Instead of a feature profile, I wrote a guide to his discography, which The Wire’s made available online until October 26. Check it out if you like.
I saw Sanders live twice. The first time was in the mid ’90s, at Iridium when it was still uptown near Lincoln Center. I don’t remember the entire band, but Ron Carter was on bass, Cindy Blackman (not yet Cindy Blackman Santana) was on drums, and Sanders climaxed the set with a number on which he pounded his chest and sang a bellowing, wordless song. The second time was on December 28, 2019, also at Iridium but this time in their Times Square-adjacent location. His band included Benito Gonzalez on piano, Nate Reeves on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums. Sanders played most of the set sitting down, and there wasn’t that much tyrannosaurus-style free jazz to be heard. He was mostly playing late ’50s style hard bop, which was even more interesting, because it was a reminder, for those who didn’t know, that he was an absolute master of the horn, every bit as technically adept as his former boss, John Coltrane, and he could swing as hard as anyone you might care to name. Toward the end of the set, he was joined by his son Tomoki Sanders, also playing tenor, and the younger man took things out, as his father looked on with a gentle smile.
Pharoah Sanders’ discography is a wondrous thing. He made dozens of albums under his own name, starting with a 1965 album variously released as Pharoah, Pharoah’s First, and Pharoah Sanders Quintet on the ESP-Disk label. He then worked with John Coltrane for the last two years of Coltrane’s life, beginning with the album Ascension and continuing on Meditations, Om, Kulu Sé Mama, and several high-impact live albums, most notably Live in Seattle, the four-CD set Live in Japan, and the recent live version of A Love Supreme released just last year. Coltrane and Sanders drove each other to feverish heights onstage, supported by Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Rashied Ali on drums. The nearly hour-long versions of “Crescent” and “My Favorite Things” on Live in Japan are literally stunning. It’s amazing that anyone onstage survived those performances.
But after Coltrane’s passing, Sanders truly came into his own as more than just a supporting voice, and his vision of jazz was unlike anything else out there in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He put together large ensembles that included horns, piano, multiple bassists, and two or three percussionists, and played long, pulsing suites that might take up a whole album side or, in the case of Black Unity, a whole album. One of my favorite Sanders albums is 1972’s Live at the East, on which the band included Hannibal Marvin Peterson on trumpet, Harold Vick on tenor sax, Carlos Garnett on flute, Joe Bonner on piano and harmonium, Cecil McBee and Stanley Clarke on basses, Norman Connors and Billy Hart on drums, and Lawrence Killian on congas and balafon, plus an uncredited female vocalist. (It was not actually recorded at the Brooklyn performance space; it was a studio session, with the highly enthusiastic audience brought in.) It begins with the nearly 22-minute “Healing Song,” a mantra-like horn line played over surges of piano, rumbling double basses and rattling, skittering percussion and gentle but free drumming. Sanders’ tone on the saxophone is huge, seeming to crackle with excess energy; his phrases have built-in reverberation that sits in your chest cavity, massaging your heart. The piece is a thrilling, soaring workout that blends African rhythms with gospel-tinged free jazz to create an effect that’s like being baptized in sound. If I was to pick just one piece to sum up the phrase “spiritual jazz,” “Healing Song” might be it.
In 1969, Sanders recorded Izipho Zam, an album that wasn’t released until 1973, and on Strata-East rather than his main label at the time, Impulse!. For these reasons, it kinda gets overlooked, but it’s a hidden treasure of his catalog, and another one of my favorites. The ensemble includes Sonny Fortune on alto sax, Howard Johnson on tuba, Lonnie Liston Smith on piano, Sonny Sharrock on guitar, Cecil McBee and Sirone on basses, Billy Hart and Majeed Shabazz on drums, Nat Bettis and Tony Wylie on percussion, Chief Bey on African drums, and Leon Thomas on vocals and percussion. It begins with “Prince of Peace,” a chant-like song that Sanders would re-record as “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah” on 1970’s Jewels of Thought. But the title track, which is nearly 29 minutes long and takes up the entire second side, is the album’s heart, featuring Thomas’s yodeling vocals over a shimmering West Africa-meets-NYC modal groove and a very catchy, almost soul-jazz hook. There’s a brief free eruption, Sanders and Sharrock going at it (and each other) in an atonal blast, about five minutes from the end, but overall the piece is a blissed-out trance ritual.
Another Sanders album that’s stuck with me since I first heard it in 1994 or so is The Trance of Seven Colors, his collaboration with Moroccan gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, produced by Bill Laswell. The opening track, “La Allah Dayim Moulenah,” is 11 minutes long, and it’s an absolute tidal wave of energy. It begins with Sanders playing meditative solo phrases, gradually heading deeper inside himself and letting a melody spiral upward until the gnawa group comes in behind him, the massive throbbing guimbri bass line, clattering metallic percussion, and repeated call-and-response vocal chants providing a stunning backdrop through which Sanders repeatedly bursts like a flamethrower. I interviewed Laswell in 2011, and asked him about his memories of making the album, and he made it sound like a very high-risk endeavor:
Well, I remember we took a lot of equipment to North Africa and in those days it wasn’t small or easy to carry. It was pretty heavy, pretty overweight, pretty bulky, and it was a big operation. We took all this gear not to a village, it was a city, but on the water, Essaouaria, and we thought we had it all covered, and then there was a power surge or shortage, so while we were recording, we could see the meters but we couldn’t actually monitor the sound. So we didn’t even know what was on these digital tapes until we got home. It was pretty scary. But it was with a full 16-track digital setup, with expensive microphones and very heavy gear to carry. Very expensive to do, but the end result, you know, everything did translate and it was well recorded. As opposed to people that go with a cassette machine and then they wonder why nobody’s listening to the record 10 years later.
A lot of veterans and legends kind of drift away. They stop recording several years before their passing, either due to illness or lack of opportunities. Sanders’ last album under his own name was With a Heartbeat, a Laswell-produced collaboration with cornet player Graham Haynes (himself a Burning Ambulance Music recording artist) from 2003, but he continued to appear on records with David Murray, Tisziji Muñoz, Kenny Garrett, Kahil El’Zabar, and others. And he stayed on the road. As I mentioned above, he was a featured guest with a one-off combination of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago and São Paulo Underground ensembles in 2013; two abstract but potent albums were culled from a concert at the Jazz Em Agosto Festival in Lisbon. A few years later, in May 2016, he co-headlined a Brooklyn concert with the Sun Ra Arkestra and Kamasi Washington’s group, and he joined Gary Bartz for a 50th anniversary celebration of the alto player’s Another Earth album, on which he’d played, at Winter Jazzfest 2019.
I had never heard of Floating Points (real name: Sam Shepherd) before it was announced in 2021 that he had recorded an album with Sanders. I checked out his back catalog, and wasn’t that impressed — it was placidly beautiful electronic music that drew critical comparisons to Olivier Messaien, Bill Evans, and other soundtracks for all-white living rooms. His 2015 album Elaenia was greeted with critical rapture far out of proportion to its essential pleasantness. Promises, though, was something else, something truly special.
It’s a 46-minute suite, recorded together with Sanders in the studio rather than having the saxophonist punch his parts in remotely. It’s divided into nine “movements,” but with one notable exception, the track divisions seem arbitrary, inserted for listener convenience. Once the music starts, it moves seamlessly along. It begins with a repeated keyboard figure, almost like a harpsichord shadowed by an electric piano. Soft creaks can be heard, as though someone is shifting in their chair. After a minute or so, Sanders enters, soft and gritty, his tone harsh but fundamentally gentle, like a chiding parent. He’s singing, not roaring; his total mastery of the horn makes his phrases emerge like someone narrating a lucid dream at sunrise.
Shepherd’s contributions are repetitive, but not static; the third movement features a squiggly synth solo straight from Pink Floyd circa Wish You Were Here. The fourth movement consists of Sanders murmuring and humming; he picks up his horn again for the fifth section. In the sixth, the London Symphony Orchestra, given full credit on the cover, finally comes in at full strength, swelling around Sanders and the still repeating central keyboard figure. The strings have a sort of spiritual romanticism that recalls Alice Coltrane’s early ’70s albums World Galaxy and Universal Consciousness in particular — so much so, in fact, that it can only be a deliberate homage.
Toward the midpoint of the seventh movement, the keyboards burble into life again, in a way that brings to mind, of all things, The Orb’s “Towers of Dub.” At the end of the eighth movement, there’s nearly a full minute of silence, and then the strings fade slowly back in. It starts off like the closing credits of a movie, but when they get more active than they’ve been at any other point on the record, the track almost feels misplaced. I kinda think it would have worked better as an overture, before the album proper began.
Even though Sanders and Shepherd worked on it together, and in fact it was the saxophonist’s idea, Promises doesn’t always come across like a true meeting of equals. Laswell used Sanders as a plug-in element on a bunch of records in the late ’90s, and Michael Mantler’s Jazz Composers Orchestra did the same on 1968’s Communications, and there’s a little bit of that feel here. But ultimately, it works out; he’s so completely himself that the album would be unimaginable with anyone else at its center, and the whole thing is truly beautiful. Reconsidered now as a final gesture, it’s even more vital and kind of a perfect capstone to Sanders’ incredible career.
There will never be another one like Pharoah Sanders. His vision of jazz, which borrowed sounds from Africa and India but only as parts of a holistic sound that was entirely his own, expanded the boundaries of what was possible. But he wasn’t just a brilliant leader, he was also a generous guest, always looking to serve the music and thus willing to be a fellow traveler on someone else’s journey, while still speaking in his own voice when called upon. He had a long and productive artistic life, and he leaves behind one of the deepest and most rewarding catalogs in jazz history. If you’ve never explored his music before now, I envy you — what you’re about to discover will change you forever.