Thembi: Pharoah Sanders


The recorded music that I write about here at downwithit Is a mixture of old favourite albums, some of which I’ve lived with for years and other sets that are much newer to my ears. This set, Thembi by Pharoah Sanders only came into my possession less than 24 hours ago.

Regular readers may have read my comments on Pharoah’s Africa here. I’ve been listening to his later albums for over 20 years now and I’ve seen this amazing performer live on a number of occasions, but for a variety of reasons I’ve not heard much of his earlier work on the Impulse label. I was put off in the case of Thembi by the cover portrait (a very poor excuse indeed). I am not very taken by Pharoah’s hat, tunic or unusual choice of instrument. How fickle and foolish can I get?After all, unusual hat choices have not stopped me listening to Monk. And I don’t suppose Pharoah would be very impressed by the clothes I chose and wore as the 1970’s progressed.

I can reveal that my fashion-led prejudice against Thembi has been exploded.

Thembi was Pharoah Sander’s 7th release and his 5th on Impulse. Some critics have noted a move away from muscular and strident free jazz on this set and have commented unfavourably on a record which Steve Huey (AllMusic) describes as being all over the map. We shall see.

The first track Astral Travelling is a gentle Lonnie Liston Smith composition. It is brought to you here on YouTube courtesy of Praguedive:-

To listen, touch or click on the arrow.

The stereo sound is most engaging with a myriad of percussion instruments adding texture and teasing the ears. I know little about studios and recording but I suspect that full use was made of the facilities for multi-tracking and over-dubbing available at The Record Plant in Los Angeles (tracks 1-3) and it’s sister Record Plant in New York City (tracks 4-6).

Red, Black & Green starts out with a minute of cacophony, which led to an unfavourable comparison to a new vacuum cleaner in my household. It soon resolves into a soundscape, albeit one overlaid with some challenging sounds, before entering the sombre yet beautiful territory that John Coltrane explored on the brief and stunning Alabama.

The title track Thembi returns to melody and light multi-layered percussion. It is a self-penned composition that charts the course that Pharoah would follow on his later albums (so much so that I just checked the six that were close at hand to see if this track had been revisited in later years. It had but only in kind).

Love offers bass player Cecil McBee a solo performance- another of Thembi’s soundscape for quiet reflection. It is the first of the three New York tracks, recorded in January 1971, 6 weeks after the LA session, and cuts into Morning Prayer. Lonnie Liston Smith’s piano is superb, on a par with that of Pharoah’s later and longstanding pianist, John Hicks. This, in turn, gives way to Bailophone Dance, a splendid closer which shows that Pharoah was listening and drawing on African music.

So there we have it, Pharoah Sanders Thembi. I should have listened to and acted on the wisdom of Bo Diddley:-
You can’t judge an apple by looking at the tree.
You can’t judge honey by looking at the bee.
You can’t judge a daughter by looking at the mother.
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover!

Or, evidently, a Pharoah Sanders album! It needn’t have feared the outmost extremities of free jazz because they are not here. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I have turned this around from shop to your desktop in less than 24 hours.

The band:
Tracks 1-3: Pharoah Sanders (Tenor and Soprano saxophones, bells, percussion); Michael White (Violin, percussion); Lonnie Liston Smith (Piano, electric piano, claves, percussion); Cecil McBee (Bass, percussion); Clifford Jarvis (Drums, percussion); James Jordan (Ring Cymbals track 3).
Tracks 4-6: Pharoah Sanders (Tenor and Soprano saxophones, Alto flute, brass bells, percussion etc); Lonnie Liston Smith (Piano, percussion, shouts); Cecil McBee (Bass, Bird effects); Roy Haynes (Drums); Chief Bey, Majid Shabazz, Anthony Wiles & Nat Bettis (African percussion). Recorded: Tracks 1-3: 25 November 1970: The Record Plant Los Angeles. Tracks 1-6: 12 January 1971: The Record Plant, New York City. Produced: Ed Michel & Bill Scymczyk. Recording engineer: Bill Scymczyk. Cover notes: Keorapetse Kgositsile. Originally issued as Impulse AS9206.