Spiral Mercury: Pharoah Sanders

Pharoah S Spiral Mercury

My apologies for being a little tardy in writing about my latest contemporary recording.

This live performance, recorded in August 2013, is the latest release by Pharoah Sanders. It involves him playing as part of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago / São Paulo Underground ensemble. Spiral Mercury captures half of a live set and I’ve yet to listen to the other tranche which is release as Primative Jupiter– which I’ll be ordering before the weekend is out. The compositions on both sets are all by Rob Mazurek, so these albums don’t feature Pharoah’s own repertoire. However, this may have its own unexpected bounty because it allows us to listen to how Pharoah works in a live setting with material that is, presumably, relatively new to him.

I’ve been living with it for over a month now and it is proving a bit of a challenge to write about. Initially I thought of it as a set led by Pharoah and that hasn’t been helpful to my efforts to capture a flavour of it, as it is more of a collective effort featuring the great saxophonist both as a soloist but mainly as part of a larger whole.

The set also features Chad Taylor who we last met as a part of The Marc Ribot Trio on his Live At The Village Vanguard release which I took a look at here in early June this year.

The recording took place in one of my favourite settings. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is located in Lisbon, a city I love to visit. It combines superb indoor and outdoor performance spaces with a unique, world-class collection of paintings and other objects de art put together by a very interesting man (read about him here), who was known as ‘Mr Five Percent’, because that was the perpetual retainer he insisted on for using his expertise to broker the formation of several of the great oil companies including Royal Dutch / Shell. His extreme wealth (a Bill Gates of his time) allowed his team of experts the freedom to scour the world for the very best available examples of anything that he wanted. He insisted on ‘nothing but the best!’ I’ve steered clear of my love of football here at downwithit but suffice to say, his motto is written on my heart. I’d nominate the late Mr Calouste Gulbenkian (d.1955) as a dinner guest, as his take on the first half of the last century and any candid asides would be priceless.

Back to Pharoah and the boys though. It’s time to publish, so here goes!

Cna Toom opens the set. Spaceage synthesiser meanderings beg the question that a Sun Ra session is on the system. A repeated bass loop provides a reference point for free improvisation. A contemplative second phase changes the soundscape after ten minutes. A drum and bass led title track,Spiral Mercury, follows and is reminiscent of Mingus on The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady.

Blue Sparks From Her opens with an incisive trumpet which leads us into a soundscape shaped by synthesised keyboards and then a repeated melodic pattern which Pharoah growls at with his tenor for a while. The track takes on a brief trance-like quality before the horns solo freestyle over a percussion base.

Asasumamehn is a dreamy soundscape embroidered around what I assume to be an mbira (African Thumb Piano). It works well in context providing a peaceful phase amidst more complex and demanding tracks.

Pigeon commences as a somewhat abstract piece before the percussionists and bass impose a strong rhythmic discipline, with Pharoah hidden in the background of the mix.

Jagoda’s Dream would not sound at all out of place on the Dylan Howe Subterraneans set that you can read about here

Finally, The Ghost Zoo is another abstract piece of free improvisation over electronica that does not work wonderfully well, and is somewhat void of a purpose, to my ears, until Pharoah finally gets space for a lyrical solo as the piece draws towards its conclusion.

Although the following lengthy YouTube film was not recorded in Lisbon, it features the same lineup and starts off with some wonderful playing from Pharoah.

To pay either click on or touch the arrow.

It’s great to know that our esteemed elder, Pharoah Sanders is still playing in an extremely adventurous way that challenges the way we we listen. If you are a newcomer to this hero you may want to start somewhere else (perhaps with Africa, which I look at here. However, make sure you catch this great saxophonist live soon!)

The band etc:- Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax, voice); Rob Mazurek (cornet, electronics, flute, voice); Guilherme Granado (synths, samples, percussion, voice); Mauricio Takara (cavaquinho, percussion, electronics); Matthew Lux (electric bass); Chad Taylor (drums, mbira).  Produced: Rob Mazurek. Recorded 11 August 2013.  Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Design & Artwork: Pedro Costa /Trem Azul.  Liner photo: Nuno Martins.  Issued as Clean Feed CF301CD.

As this recording may be very difficult to find otherwise you are probably best advised to buy it directly from Clean Feed’s website, which you can access here. Please note, this is a not for profit site and I do not benefit financially from providing this link.

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