Category Archives: Pharoah Sanders

Now is the Time (Live at The Knitting Factory): The Alex Blake Quintet

So here’s a little teaser for the brain cells. We’re looking for the year that this record was made.

Here in the UK we were out of step with our neighbours (the Euro was introduced), there were terrorist incidents in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho (2 killed and over 90 other victims) and Tracey Emin’s bed was displayed as part of her Turner Prize submission.

In the States, a President (Clinton) was impeached but acquitted, a drugs cheat won his first Tour de France and a legal case was brought to shut down Napster file sharing.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose as the French folk have been heard to say.

Prince offers another clue:-
“I was dreamin’ when I wrote this, so sue me if I go too fast
But life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.”

I think you’ve probably got it and Prince will confirm:-

“Say say two thousand zero zero party over, oops, out of time
So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine.”

It is estimated that in 1999 only 1/5 of the population of the United Kingdom had access to the Internet.

By December 1999 the TriBeCa district of New Yok City was no longer a down at heel home for aspiring artists and musicians. The big money had squeezed most of them out. It was still the location of The Knitting Factory, a celebrated performance venue and it was there that bassist, Alex Blake recorded this fine set with Pharoah Sanders sitting in on tenor saxophone.

As you will guess, it was the prospect of hearing Sanders play live that led me to seek out this recording. Blake was not a musician that I was familiar with but, bearing in mind that a stranger is a potential friend that you have not met yet, I ordered my copy.

So let’s settle back at our table for this performance.

On the Spot opens with a drum prelude before the tune is introduced. It is a close relative of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and it offers a springboard for Pharoah to take off from. In 1999 he was 59 years old and playing with brilliance as the first soloist. John Hicks, Sanders’ regular accompanist sparkles on piano before Victor Jones is given a drum solo.

A further percussion intro leads into The Chief, a second Blake composition. Hicks demonstrates his creativity over a a solid progression with Blake’s bass to the fore. He offers up an impressive solo as the piece moves along briskly with a sense of excitement that still sounds contemporary.

Blake shifts to electric bass for Little Help, a solo based on Lennon and McCartney’s With a Little Help From My Friends. It is novel to hear the bass as the lead guitar and this is a track which is not to be missed and which should be better known than it is.

Blake plays a solo introduction on his acoustic bass (with some vocalisation- omitted from the selection below) to the title track Now is the Time. This is another bustling theme, well suited to an exciting live performance. Hicks entrances and Pharoah offers up a solo played towards the acidic edge of the tenor saxophone. There is also some more very impressive bass from Alex Blake. You can take a listen courtesy of Supajazz on YouTube:-

To play either touch or click on the arrow

Finally, the album closes with Mystery of Love, a tune with a ballad at its heart by Guy Warren, a Ghanaian musician and social activist who was influential through his encouragement of black Americians seeking to make positive links with Africa.

This is the only relatively readily available album led by Alex Blake. He continues to perform in 2017 as a member of Randy Weston’s band. He was born in Pamama in 1951 and grew up in Brooklyn, NY. He started his career as a musician with Sun Ra’s Arkestra before playing Fusion with Lenny White and Billy Cobham and playing on recordings by Pharoah Sanders, Yusef Lateef. He also had a lengthy stint with Manhattan Transfer.

Pharoah Sanders and John Hicks sparkle without dominating and since Now is the Time still sounds great my suggestion is that it should be purchased if you come across it.

The band etc.:- Alex Blake (acoustic bass, electric bass track 4, Percussion, vocals); Pharoah Sanders(tenor saxophone); John Hicks (piano); Victor Jones (drums); Neil Clark (percussion); Chris Hunter (additional alto saxophone). Recorded live 6 December 1999 at The Knitting Factory, New York City. Produced by: Alex Blake. Recording Engineers: Peter Katis &Sascha Van Oetzen. Cover photo / booklet: Eric Decker. Art Direction and Design: Rudi Reitberg. Issued in 2000: Bubble Core Records BC030.

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Looking ahead: A Concert for Alice and John Coltrane

This year marks 50 years since the passing of the great John Coltrane (and 10 years since that of his wife Alice Coltrane). On 18 November, a special commemorative concert is to be held at The Barbican in London.

It features a rare London appearance by Pharoah Sanders (hopefully accompanied by pianist William Henderson) with Denys Baptiste and Alina Bzhezhinska also performing on the bill.

The concert publicity says it will be:-

A three-part journey through the cosmos, celebrating the profound musical and spiritual legacy of two of the most influential figures in Western musical history: Alice and John Coltrane.

When I checked the Barbican Box Office on 25 August 2017, the concert had sold out.

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Pharoah Sanders live at Ronnie Scott’s: First set- 9 July 2016

Pharoah Journey To The One

You know what? Those of us who enjoy this music are very fortunate. It is possible to see musicians from the simply great to absolutely world-class standard perform in small venues. Saturday night offered a long awaited opportunity to see Pharoah Sanders perform live again, this time in the comfortable, indeed salubrious surroundings of Ronnie Scott’s.

Regular readers will be aware of my enjoyment of Pharoah’s music and may have noticed that I have posted links to reviews of a number of his recent American gigs. You may even have noted an underlying wistfulness as time passed without news of a UK gig. Eventually though this evening, almost on my doorstep in London, was announced.

Pharoah was accompanied by his regular pianist William Henderson and his European rhythmn section. Gene Calderazzo on drums is an alumni of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where a roommate was none other than Branford Marsalis, while bass player Oli Hayhurst was a founder member of Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble.

Pharoah played Origin, which first appeared as a septet version featuring scat vocals on the 1981 Rejoice set and again six years later in an earthier stripped down quartet context on Africa. Set like a diamond in the precious metal setting of his superb accompanists it seemed unlikely that we would witness the extensive explorations reliant on circular breathing but the tone was there and Pharoah’s spirit will never waiver.

John Coltrane’s beautiful love song for his first wife, Naima, was delivered with great sensitivity before Pharoah, ramped up the passion with a powerful rendition of Highlife, another selection from Rejoice. His expressive chants were matched with an equally strong saxophone part.

The band were of the highest calibre, although I am puzzled by why William Henderson doesn’t seem to have recorded as a leader as his playing has merited this for years. A trio performance featuring himself, Calderazzo and Hayhurst, perhaps on a small label like Smoke Sessions could be brilliant.

My evening was made when Pharoah graciously signed a couple of CD booklets that I had brought with me on the off chance (which is why this article has a picture of my CD copy of Journey To The One at the head). Even if you were to offer me three John Coltrane’s, four Monk’s or ten Miles Davis signed items these are momentos that I will never part with.

Evenings like this are gems to be stored up in the memory, treasured and returned to when times get tough. Unfortunately, the set was a short club sized morsal and all too soon it was time for the attentive staff to turn us out to the bright lights and crowds of an early Soho night. Oh for the old days when you could watch the early set at Ronnie’s and stay on for the second performance! Still, I also have memories of longer free-blowing sets at Dingwalls and The Jazz Cafe from the distant past to recall. I understand that Pharoah may have played other songs from his repertoire including You’ve Got To Have Freedom in his second set (if you were there, please leave a comment and let us know).

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Ed Kelly and Pharoah Sanders

Sanders Kelly

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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Pharoah Sanders coming to Ronnie Scott’s in July 2016

It will come as no surprise to regular readers when I repeat my very high regard for Pharoah Sanders. I’ve been hoping for an opportunity to see him again for several years.

I was delighted to learn that this great saxophonist is coming back to the UK in July and that he will be playing two shows at Ronnie Scott’s in London on Saturday 9th July 2016.

If you are quick you may also be able to book a ticket for this unmissable master musician. The last time I looked in early May, the earlier show had sold out. By late May 2016, both sets had sold out

The details are here.

Pharoah was at Birdland in New York City in early April 2016, and you can read a fine review from Chris Tart of the dubera.com blog here

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Pharoah Sanders plays live in Washington DC & wins award

Pharoah Sanders was 75 in October 2015 and he marked the milestone with a short residency at the delightfully named Bohemian Caverns in Washington DC. There’s a very positive review by Jackson Sinnenberg here.

Also in October, Pharoah was honoured, along with Archie Shepp, Gary Burton and jazz benevolent society Director, Wendy Oxenhorn. They were recipients of The National Endowment for the Arts 2016 NEA Jazz Masters awards for their significant accomplishments in the field. You can read more about this here.

No news of any British gigs at present though.

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Ptah, The El Daoud: Alice Coltrane

Ptah The El Daud Cover

What an awful front cover was my first reaction after the excitement of happening across the burnt orange and black spine that meant another Impulse recording had crossed my path. Oh well! Let’s check out who was playing on the session with Alice Coltrane, before I re-shelve it, I thought. It was my good fortune that I did, as I discovered that two of my favourite tenor saxophonists were on duty here: Pharoah Sanders, who I was half-expecting anyway and Joe Henderson, who I wasn’t.

I still felt a sense of trepidation as I prepared to listen. How ‘out there’ would it turn out to be? Would it be some sort of strange concept album exploring arcane spiritual myths with music that was near unlistenable.

As things turned out, I needn’t have worried at all. The set is an absolute treat that deserves to be much better known. Essentially, it is Alice Coltrane’s first recording as leader of a quintet featuring horns (although the sleeve notes point out that Pharoah played bass clarinet on A Monastic Trio, AC’s first release following John Coltrane’s untimely passing). It was recorded at the home studio in the Coltrane house at Dix Hills, Long Island, which adds a certain cachet too.

The title track has a remorseless march-like jauntiness about it and it is a most engaging piece of music that benefits from an ever-present sense of motion and direction.

Turiya and Ramakrishna starts with over four minutes of the most beautiful piano playing before Ron Carter takes a restrained bass solo. Alice Coltrane returns with more wonderous piano on this masterpiece of playing. I don’t know exactly what she is doing, but I’ve asked a piano playing colleague to take a listen to see if he can enlighten me. He tells me that the pianist is playing the black keys and the improvisation is centred on Eb Minor, which gives it the delicate and sophisticated bluesy feel (thanks Mark). If you want a treat you can listen on the link below- either touch or click on the arrow to play.

Blue Nile brings the return of Henderson and Sanders who have exchanged their tenor saxophones for alto flutes with which to accompany Alice Coltrane who plays harp.

Finally, Mantra offers a platform for the two tenors. The sleeve notes helpfully identify that Pharoah is to be heard through the right channel, while the left belongs to Joe Henderson. The first solo is Joe’s and he does reference Mode For Joe briefly in it. Pharoah gets plenty of space and plays with great skill and control before introducing some of his special phonic techniques.

The presence of Alice on piano keeps things grounded around an extremely listenable modal centre.

A further surprise was discovering that the original sleeve notes were written by Leonard Feather. If ever a critic had the capacity to wound with razor honed stiletto words, Lennie was that man. You know what though? He enjoyed this set.

So there you have it. downwithit.info loves it and so does Leonard Feather. You might like it too. My pristine CD copy cost me £4.00, which is significantly less than the pint of Meantime Brewery’s Yakima Red that I’ve just enjoyed. There seemed to be lots of copies available on vinyl on eBay last week. Don’t be put off either by the iffy cover or the Arabic title (incidentally, Ptah is an Egyptian god (highly placed in the pantheon, I understand) and ‘the El Daoud’ means the beloved).

This is an unreserved recommendation. Buy this beautiful recording at your first opportunity! Let us know what you think. I doubt if you will be disappointed.

If you have enjoyed what you’ve just read, please click or touch on the thumbs up/like button. If you don’t like it please select the thumbs down.

The band etc: Alice Coltrane (Piano, harp); Pharoah Sanders (tenor saxophone, alto flute, bells. Right channel); Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone, alto flute. Left channel); Ron Carter (bass); Ben Riley (drums). Produced: Ed Michel. Recorded: The Coltrane home studio, Dix Hills, New York. 26 January 1970. Graphic Design: Jason Claibourne. Cover Photography (and occasional bells). Charles Stewart. Released: 1970. Original release: Impulse AS 9196.

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Pharoah Sanders live. Baby’s All Right NYC. 7 May 2015

This is another Pharoah Sanders gig that I didn’t get to see, mainly because it was in New York City and I was in London.

There is a New York Times review here accompanied by an excellent photo.

It seems like Pharoah was playing well and I enjoyed this paragraph in particular:-

But this crowd was listening hard and well. At one point, Mr. Booth played a solo that alternated between only two notes. It was an exercise in focused simplicity, and the crowd processed exactly what was good about it: Cheers erupted when he finished. The same went for a single note played by Mr. Sanders toward the end: not particularly long or showstopping, but big and strong and decisive, full of overtones. The audience members seemed to understand that it was more than a note; they understood the power of its placement, and the information it contained, and how in a way it represented Mr. Sanders’s whole enterprise.

I remain hopeful that we will get the chance to see Pharoah in the UK later this year.

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Tauhid: Pharoah Sanders

IMG_1376

Time for another look at a Pharoah Sanders set. In late November 1966, Pharoah was ready to lead the first Impulse session to go out under his own name and Tauhid was the result. Having already come to notice alongside John Coltrane, where his tenor saxophone added heat and fire he was in the driving seat. What were listeners to experience on hearing his first album for what I’m tempted to refer to as the label that enabled?

Upper and Lower Egypt represents Pharoah’s attempts to create an image of how his extensive reading about that part of the world made him feel and the resonances that it created in him. The slower portentous Upper Egypt introduction gives way to a repetition of the theme that is very close to the later You’ve Got To Have Freedom. We are some 12 minutes into the piece before Pharoah’s tenor takes pride of place, sounding as though he wants to blow it apart. A brief scat vocal follows

Henry Grimes, who we met playing alongside Marc Ribot here, adds double bass throughout and a very impressive contribution he makes too!

Japan is a delightful short tune that Pharoah wrote While reflecting on a trip that he took there with John Coltrane in the summer of 1966. There’s a bit of improvised vocalise and it is enjoyable.

The final suite was written as three individual pieces which flowed together when recorded. Sanders plays alto saxophone on Aum, which features a series of scales and phrases played extremely fast in a manner reminiscent of Coltrane’s sheets of sound. The sleeve notes record how for Pharoah, the word holds a kind of magical quality and:- ‘It means God. It means peace. It means the beginning of things.’ Sanders was certainly aiming for something miles away from easy melody when he started to blow on this and Grimes adds to the challenging cacophony with sharp notes he finds and plucks from his four strings.

I assume the transformation into the Venus section is the point where we return to conventional tune and melody. Venus was written with Sanders star sign in mind, as was Capricorn Rising which, he informs us, is also part of his horoscope. It is both sweet and sour, seemingly without form but improvised around a beautiful tune. If a tune can frighten the horses while soothing the savage breast it is this one.

A bass passage (coda?) leads us into Capricorn Rising. This piece is an angry sounding, instrument testing taster for the lyricism which came to the fore in Phroah’s playing on his much later A Prayer Before Dawn set (which we will visit at some stage).

Tauhid is an album where Pharoah doesn’t seek to hog the limelight and where he sought to convey feelings and impressions. He speaks about what he is trying to do: ‘…it’s not that I’m trying to scream on my horn. I’m just trying to put all my feelings into the horn. And when you do that the notes go away’. So Tauhid is not an album of dinner jazz or one for a first date. Those chained to a classical sense of what is musical and what isn’t will run away making dismissive comments, but the open-minded will reap rich rewards here. Why not give it a try courtesy of YouTube:-

To play, touch or click on the arrow

The band:
Pharoah Sanders (Tenor and Alto saxophones, Piccolo, Voice); Sonny Sharrock (Guitar); Dave Burrell (Piano); Henry Grimes (Bass); Roger Blank (Drums); Nat Bettis (Percussion). Recorded: 15 November 1966. Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Produced: Bob Thiele. Recording engineer: Rudy Van Gelder. Cover notes: Nat Hentoff. Cover photography: Charles Stewart. Originally issued in 1967 as Impulse AS9138.

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Pharoah Sanders live in San Francisco: 12 January 2015

Regular readers may know that Pharoah Sanders is a saxophonist that I enjoy very much.

When checking to see if any UK dates are scheduled (sadly, none listed at present), I came across a recent live review by Gary Vercelli, which you can read here. The author was wondering if 74 year old Pharoah can still perform at a high level. His conclusion is that:-

Pharoah Sanders showed that age is just a number. He still negotiates the chord changes with ease and finesse and inner child is still very much alive!

That’s good news– hopefully we’ll see for ourselves later in 2015.

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