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.
Tickets are currently available at all prices (as of 21st June 2017) at The Barbican Box Office here. At £35 or the best seats (and considerably less for others), I hope some of you will also be there.
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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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.
Please consider completing the following short single choice poll:-
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.
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.
An old favourite, Pharoah Sanders was in action again last weekend at the 2014 New Orleans Jazz Festival. The performance on Friday 2nd May was witnessed by NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune journalist, Chris Waddington who wrote:-
As for Sanders, his evident frailties seemed to fall away whenever he picked up his horn. Still possessed of a vast, canyonlike sound, rich in overtones, he put it at the service of a dignified, spiritual music that proved funky enough to keep the crowd to its feet for much of the show. And Sanders hasn’t forgotten his expressionist youth, peppering his slowly evolving modal solos with upper register squeals and multiphonic honks that flashed like lightning amid the towering clouds.
The reviewer added further special praise for Marlon Jordan, a New Orleans trumpet player who joined Pharoah’s regular musicians for the show. With that endorsement, obviously Jordan’s is a horn to listen out for, although as the wiki link here points out, he’s been about for some time- downwithit has put on the ‘slow out of the blocks’ hat of shame for the rest of the evening!
You can read this excellent review in full here. There are also some great photos from the performance there too. As the closest I’ve been to New Orleans is through viewings of the excellent HBO series Treme, it’s great to have found this direct line to news from this great jazz city and I’ve got a new bookmark for my browser.
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 Africahere. 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.
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.
The downwithit playlist is a list of 20 YouTube track selections that I have used to give readers a taste of the albums that I have looked at here on downwithit. They are highlighted and form part of a full post.
They are gathered together here for your further pleasure. Click on the burnt orange title to link directly to YouTube and listen.
If you would like to read my full post for the album, each one is available to read here on downwithit
The following six tracks should open on a tablet or mobile device and a computer:-
Happy Christmas everybody and thanks for dropping by. From downwithit.info.
Pharoah Sanders adopts a light touch for his version of Nat King Cole’s classic (penned by Mel Torme and Robert Wells), brought here from YouTube courtesy of Peter W. Bosse. This is the closing track of Pharoah’s A Prayer Before Dawn set from 1987.
Click on or touch arrow to play the song.
Such a beautiful and seasonal ballad. Make it your business to try to see Pharoah live in 2014 if he appears at a venue near you!
The band etc: Pharoah Sanders (tenor saxophone); Bill Henderson (piano, synthesizer); John Hicks (piano); William Henderson (Kurzweil synthesizer); Alvin Queen (drums). September 1987 Recorded at Hyde Street Studios, San Francisco. Produced by Pharoah Sanders assisted by Allen Pittman and Mark Needham. Cover design: Tami Needham. Cover Photograph Richard Blair. Released as: Theresa TRCD 127
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