This weekend we lost the tenor saxophone giant Pharoah Sanders. Much is said about music as a healing force, and I can think of few people who’ve remained as steadfast in their commitment to that as Pharoah was. Thankfully, he left an enormous body of documented work so we can continue to heal from life’s challenges (including, ironically, his physical absence) with his assistance. I encourage anyone reading this to go as far down the rabbit hole as they’re able, and for those who don’t know where to start, here is a handful of my own favorites.
1 ) “Naima” from Live at the Village Vanguard Again! by John Coltrane (1966)
In addition to the sheer awesomeness, I also have some nostalgia here, as this was my first exposure to Pharoah with John Coltrane, when I was a teenager. Ironically I had already heard (having been gifted the cassette) and loved Pharoah’s lyrical rendition of this classic Coltrane ballad on a late-80s Coltrane tribute with McCoy Tyner, Cecil McBee, and Roy Haynes, so I suppose I expected something similar here. Nope, and I was not prepared. Pharoah’s solo follows Coltrane’s melody statement and, combined with the fury of Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali, I thought I was listening to someone who had swallowed nails. By the second or third listen, though all I heard was soul and passion. Though I wanted to represent a wider cross-section of his work, I could have easily just made a whole list of performances with John Coltrane.
2 ) “There Is The Bomb” from Where Is Brooklyn by Don Cherry (1966)
Don Cherry’s 1960s Blue Note sessions are underappreciated masterpieces and this album features Pharoah as he assumed the tenor saxophone chair previously held by Gato Barbieri. By contrast with the rhythmically ambiguous and furious playing on the previous track, it’s fascinating to hear Pharoah here articulating his ideas so clearly in this interactive yet swinging setting just a half year later.
3 ) “The Creator Has A Master Plan” from Karma (1969)
Whenever I teach about jazz of the late 1960s I find myself regretting that it’s seldom feasible to play this track (Pharoah’s signature song) in its 33 minute entirety. But that doesn’t stop me (or you, hopefully) from doing so on my own and enjoying the epic journey he and vocalist Leon Thomas take us on. This is perhaps the very epitome of that era’s spiritually-inclined jazz (not just Pharoah’s, but more broadly) and that this had some crossover success in spite of the utterly bonkers levels of energy and dissonance in some parts is a testament to its resonance.
4 ) “Journey in Satchidananda” from Journey in Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane (1970)
Though best known, of course, for his tenor saxophone work, Pharoah’s flute and soprano saxophone were also important tools in his arsenal, and both were used to wonderful effect in the projects helmed by Alice Coltrane, his former bandmate in her husband’s quintet. This song is another classic of spiritual jazz and Pharoah’s work on soprano saxophone is deeply soulful.
5 ) “The Gathering” from Elevation (1973)
There could easily have been a whole list of his sessions for Impulse! Records, but this one is a little different on account of it being a live album. He and his band (with featured solos here by the wonderful Joe Bonner on piano and Calvin Hill on bass, along with Michael Carvin on drums and multiple percussionists) utterly thrash and I can only imagine what it would have been like to be in the audience for this.
6 ) “Little Rock’s Blues” from Love and Peace by Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner (1982)
I was a little ambivalent about including this Sanders composition (the title of which references his city of origin) simply because his own solo isn’t as lengthy as one tends to expect. However, in addition to it just being a wonderful performance, it’s an important early documentation of Pharoah in the more straight-ahead contexts (here blowing several choruses of swinging, modern vocabulary without a screaming climax) in which he could increasingly be heard starting in the 1980s.
7 ) “Promises Kept” from Ask the Ages by Sonny Sharrock (1991)
This album is one of my favorites of the whole decade – honestly I feel like everybody I know who is hip to this record feels similarly, and it’s one of the most potent evocations of the spirit of 1960s John Coltrane to come in subsequent decades. In ironic contrast to the prior track, it feels weird not to include the song “Little Rock,” but this one has an even longer and more sweeping solo from Pharoah.
8 ) “Nozipho” from Message From Home (1995)
This whole album, produced by Bill Laswell, is moody and hypnotic in a way that frames Pharoah’s soulful and often Pharoah-istically intense playing quite compellingly. This is my favorite track from the record (and also features solo spots from longtime pianist Bill Henderson and the wonderful and also-recently-departed bassist Charnett Moffett, who also figures heavily in the previous track), but the whole thing is worth a listen.
9 ) “Now” from Beyond the Wall by Kenny Garrett (2006)
Pharoah is an important contributor to this, one of my favorite albums of this millennium so far, and it’s fascinating to hear how he matches up with Garrett as they demonstrate differing but highly compatible approaches to passionate and harmonically literate post-Coltrane modern jazz improvisation. On this track, the two are joined as soloists by two other top-of-their-game giants in that vein, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and pianist Mulgrew Miller.
10 ) “Movement 5” from Promises with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra (2019-20)
When this album came out in 2021, it was widely hyped for its serene, hypnotic qualities (especially valued with the pandemic still in full bloom), and I found it fascinating to observe a weird sort of full circle with this artist who was alternately celebrated and derided for his unbridled, gritty passion to now be getting wide praise (insofar as any jazz musician gets “wide” anything) for his soothing contributions as a featured soloist. Mostly, though, I was just so glad for this music and that it demonstrated another extreme within the breadth of his artistry to anyone who hadn’t been keeping track through the years.