There’s great excitement and anticipation in the downwithit household. As Pharoah’s summer gig at Ronnie Scott’s approaches it seems opportune to introduce or possibly remind you of one of his lesser-known albums. I’m trying out a simple poll for visitors on this post- just to see how many of you own recordings by Pharoah, so please feel free to complete, if you so wish.
After coming to notice as a trusted sideman during John Coltrane’s final years, recording a string of his own sets on Impulse and accompanying Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry, the mid-1970’s arrived. To state things simply, this was a difficult, transitional time for the music. Free Jazz and the New Thing had exploded into difficult territory and many of those at the vanguard had turned back towards a hybrid fusion, funk and R & B sound (as exemplified by the late work of Albert Ayler- I will take a look at New Grass sometime perhaps) and the eclecticism of Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues.
Pharoah Sanders seemed to have lost his way and in 1978 he released a soul jazz album on Arista, Love Will Find A Way, which I have yet to hear. I understand this featured a vocal track from Phyllis Hymen and a poor cover of Marvin Gaye as the title track.
Fortunately, in 1978 Pharoah went into the studio with pianist, Ed Kelly, who was an important figure in the local San Francisco and Oakland jazz scene. The two of them recorded six tracks which ranged from covers of standards, through soul jazz through to two real gems. The album was originally released as Ed Kelly and Friend due to Pharoah being contracted to Arista Records at the time. Indeed, as you can see, the cover shows Kelly playing next to Pharoah’s hat, shoes and Selmer tenor saxophone. Let’s explore:-
Heavens above! Smooth Jazz alert! Rainbow Song, a Kelly composition, opens matters in a manner far removed from Pharoah’s work on his Impulse albums (although there had been a dramatic change of course when he signed with Arista and recorded). This is firmly in Grover Washington Junior territory with a liberal sprinkling of oh so tasteful strings. The Master’s sound is full and mighty as ever, but the overall confection is too tame.
Thankfully, with the radio track out of the way it is business as hoped for and Newborn is a Sanders composition that burns with intensity. The power of his solo is as good as anything he has produced and he runs over the full span of the tenor’s range and onwards into territory lesser known or explored by 99% of sax players. You can take a listen, courtesy of zigett at YouTube:-
To play, touch or click on the arrow (or you may even be able to command Siri to do something).
Sam Cooke’s You Send Me is treated with reverence and respect, with Pharoah delivering a sensitive and heartfelt rendition and ending with some extraordinary phonics, which we will meet again on later albums. Kelly’s accompaniment complements Sander’s playing before he receives his own space for a shimmering yet restrained solo which discloses what this non-pianist assumes to be an agile right hand.
Pippin is another Ed Kelly composition, based firmly on the 1980″s soul sound and only merits passing attention.
Answer Me My Love is an early 50’s ballad with a fascinating back story. On its initial release in post-war Britain, covers of this this fine melody stirred sufficient controversy for the song to be banned by the BBC. What led to it being barred from broadcast on the Light Programme and treated like Anarchy For The UK, Wet Dream and Give Ireland Back To The Irish? I can reveal that the reason for this draconian action was that the original version was entitled ‘Answer Me, My Lord’. In the olden days, it seems that a direct appeal to God was considered to be blasphemous- especially if set in a secular or selfish context (I can’t understand how hymns got around this though). Further research indicates that Nat King Cole made the most celebrated recording and that Bob Dylan used to sing it live in the 1990’s, presumably during his overtly Christian phase- which I didn’t know until now was so risky. Anyway, it is a grand tune, played very well but listen with care and don’t attempt to Google the lyrics. Here at downwithit.info we have to warn you that too much of that sort of thing may place your mortal soul in peril (to those unfamiliar with English humour, I am joking here).
Pharoah went on to record at least three studio versions of his great anthem You’ve Got To Have Freedom but the one here is the earliest incarnation that I am aware of. It is also the most restrained treatment of the theme, although Pharoah’s solo shows his ability to play with fire and power over the entire range of the horn. There’s plenty of space for Kelly’s piano too and he provides an elegant setting for Sanders’ exploratory work. The version on Africa (recorded 1987) is taken at a faster pace and features an equally fine piano solo from John Hicks.
These six tracks made up the selections released on the original album on Theresa Records. From this point on, Pharoah’s work on the CD is complete and the final five recordings are from 1992 and feature Ed Kelly with a quintet on the first two and on solo piano for the last three. They are well worth a listen and my notes follow:-
Song For The Street People endeavours to create an aural representation of day to day life in Oakland. Like the next track it has that jaunty mainstream sort of feel that makes you feel all is good in the world.
West Oakland Strut wouldn’t be out of place on Donald Byrd / Mizell brothers production. AJ Johnson’s muted trumpet sounds fine but overall the piece is slightly too light for me.
The CD concludes with three solo piano pieces. Lift Every Voice has been referred to as the Black American national anthem and Kelly’s piano offers a reflection on a tune of great cultural significance. Just The Two Of Us is the popular MacDonald, Salter, Bill Withers number, which was recorded by Withers and Grover Washington Jr. on Winelight. Stripped of strings and over-embellishment it is most listenable.
Finally, Kelly takes a look at Thelonious Monk’s Well You Needn’t, which he interprets wonderfully and which shows what a talented pianist he was.
I came across this CD a couple of months ago and was surprised as I had never heard of it before. It represents a satisfying bridge from the free-fire of the Impulse recordings to the later more melodic Sanders. You should be able to track it down on CD, but expect to pay over £15.00 (which is small change for collectors of first pressings).
As I have said elsewhere, Pharoah Sanders seems to be somewhat ignored by many lovers of jazz. Some of his work on Impulse can be abrasive and difficult and, since he emerged in the mid-1960’s he doesn’t have the hard bop pedigree that some insist on. That is their loss. Ed Kelly and Pharoah Sanders has been a great find and if you want a good introduction to this great saxophonist it may be a suitable springboard for you.
Ed Kelly shows a talent that could have enabled him to have made his name on the international stage. However, he chose family life on the West Coast over potential fame in New York and was a professor of Music at Laney College, Oakland for 27 years before his untimely death aged 69 in 2005. There is an obituary here.
The bands etc:
Tracks 1-6 (the Pharoah Sanders collaborations from 1978).
Ed Kelly (Piano); Pharoah Sanders (Tenor and Soprano Saxophone); Peter Barshay (Bass); Eddie Marshall (Drums).
Recorded: Bear West Studios, San Francisco. December 1978.
Tracks 7 and 8 (quintet selections from 1992).
Ed Kelly (Piano); Robert Steward (Tenor Saxophone); AJ Johnston (Trumpet); Harley White (Bass); Mark Lignell (Drums).
Tracks 9-11 (solo piano from 1992).
Ed Kelly (Solo Piano).
Recorded: Hyde Street Studios, San Francisco. 8 December, 1978.
Produced by Allen Pittman and Al Evers. recording and Mixing Engineer: Mark Needham. Premastering: Dave Shirk. Cover design Imageworks. Cover photos: Tom Copi. CD released 1993. Evidence ECD 22056-2.
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