Pharoah Sanders: Village of the Pharoahs / Wisdom Through Music

Pharoah Sanders
Village of the Pharoahs

Raise your hand if you’ve been holding out hope that more of Pharoah Sanders’ early ‘70s catalog would finally get remastered and/or released for the first time on CD.

Anyone? Well, there weren’t necessarily people clamoring for this music even during the era it was made. But certainly more people had at least heard of Pharoah Sanders. Then again, more people had heard of jazz then. Therein lies the beauty of this music (jazz in general and Sanders in particular): it was not created with commercial intent and no jazz musician ever becomes a professional expecting to make an easy living.

Not much has changed in the last four decades, except that the audience, already diminished due to generational shifts and the full ascendancy of rock music, has shrunk considerably. And that’s okay: the important thing is that this music was made, and it is still available for the cultivated ears that crave it. Since two of Sanders’ lesser-known recordings are getting the official reissue treatment, it’s certainly cause for celebration, or at least recognition.

If you are remotely inquisitive or, better yet, have been on the lookout for this material, now’s the time to leap in, as Impulse has included Sanders in their ongoing “two-fer” reissues, wherein you get two full-length albums for the price of one. Considering the prices of import-only versions of some of these albums have been fetching in recent years, this is miraculous news for completists. Needless to say, Impulse is typically on top of their game: all the tracks sound immaculate and it is considerable cause for joy to see them receive the TLC of today’s technological advancements.

Of the two, Village of the Pharoahs is the better known, and because it also happens to be far superior to its follow-up, consider the inclusion of Wisdom Through Music a nice bonus. Both of these albums were released in 1973, and they certainly sound like it (for whatever it’s worth, that is intended mostly as a compliment). Where earlier albums, like his near-masterpiece Thembi, boasted highly regarded jazz experts such as Michael White (violin), Lonnie Liston Smith (piano) and Roy Haynes (drums), only McBee returns for these sessions. The somewhat tighter — and smaller — ensemble from the earlier work is augmented by lesser-known, but very game session players. The key word, and concept, informing this line-up shuffle is percussion: of the 13 musicians appearing on Village of the Pharoahs, seven of them are credited with contributing drums or percussion…and there is a conga player.

The results are impressive and if they sound a bit dated, it’s worth asking how this music stacks up with what is being made today. In this writer’s opinion, it holds up quite nicely indeed. The centerpiece of Village of The Pharoahs is the three-part title suite, which stretches over 16 minutes. It comes crashing (and conga-ing) out of the gate and establishes a good groove, never losing its momentum while also managing to avoid the indulgence that tended to mar some of this era’s work (including Sanders’). This is the work of a confident explorer willing to go anywhere and do anything, and a cursory glance at any of Sanders’ unsmiling album covers from this period makes the conditions clear: strap in and come along for the ride because once we start we aren’t slowing down.

Sanders has always been at his best when he balances the extremes. His mellow work (often on flute) is consistently dazzling, while his saxophonic shrieking can be seriously off-putting. The soloing on this set is a controlled — sometimes barely controlled — frenzy and the muscle of the triple-bass, multi-percussion accompaniment helps bolster the back-end so the results are more like a feast and less of a flambé. It being 1973 there is the semi-obligatory tamboura (courtesy of Kylo Kylo who warrants mention just because his name is Kylo Kylo), which grants that exotic, Eastern vibe. Yes, yes, but it’s okay; Sanders had earned this extravagance and recall, everyone from Miles to Martino was using these instruments, often to satisfying effect. Oh yeah, the chanting. It’s…all right; a little goes a long way and on this outing Sanders enforces restraint he has not always employed (before and since). We don’t have the full-on yodeling that was in effect on the album some folks consider Sanders’ best, Karma, so by comparison this material is downright conservative. In case it’s still not clear, it’s entirely worth the dough just to get a copy of the title track — “Village of The Pharoahs” is a time machine that involves neither physics nor hot tubs.

“Myth”, which functions as an epilogue to the title suite, is kind of a subdued reprise of what we’ve already heard, but in a good way. “Mansion Worlds” features some elegant piano work from Joe Bonner, while the myriad bells and percussion help this function as a more straightforward workout, consistent with Sanders’ better work of the decade. “Memories of Lee Morgan” is a gorgeous tone poem, showcasing some stunning flute playing by Art Webb and recalling some of the more tranquil work Coltrane occasionally did in his final years. Finally, “Went Like It Came” ends the proceedings in suitably over-the-top, kitchen-sink fashion, with Sanders skronking, several people “singing” and dozens of bells-a-ringing. It is as though Sanders & Co., having kept things mostly in check, could no longer contain themselves and had to unfurl the freaky banner at least one time before calling it a day. It is a throwaway track and keeps this album from bordering on great. As it is, a more than solid outing from Sanders in his prime is nothing to shake a sax at.

Wisdom Through Music would have done well with more wisdom and less shenanigans. The actual music is quite satisfactory, but all of the tracks are irredeemably soiled by the insufferable chanting and screeching. It is difficult to know precisely who to blame since, interestingly, no one claims “credit” for the vocal contributions. Suffice it to say, it is more than one voice, so there is plenty of blame to go around. The histrionics are certainly a sign of the times, but it is a shame to hear the clichéd cry “Love is everywhere!” repeated incessantly throughout the track titled (shocker) “Love is Everywhere”. Two shorter tracks, “Wisdom Through Music” and “The Golden Lamp” redeem the proceedings and manage to be memorable, both exhibiting restraint while expressing some original and attractive melodies. The final track, “Selflessness”, tends to epitomize excess overtaking the sense of adventure, ultimately rendering some of this music difficult to revisit. So, the net result of Wisdom Through Music amounts to two bonus tracks from a bonus album that accompany an excellent reissue, well worth acquiring.

A final word about this release (and, to an extent, this era): the music is a welcome reminder of many of the great and a few of the not-so-great things about the early ‘70s. On the plus side, there is the all-encompassing canvass that incorporates instruments, sounds and attitudes not confined to a specific geography or time. During the late ‘60s and well into the following decade Sanders could be credited for carrying the torch of John Coltrane, his mentor, and ably attempting to create a wider-reaching, inclusive music. Like the best avant-garde art, it cannot help straining forward even while it remains inexorably grounded in tradition. It is, above all, adventurous and it takes risks. It is never manipulative but it might manage to make you scrutinize the world — and yourself — a bit more differently or carefully. The only people who could possibly object to that possibility were never going to listen to this music in the first place.

RATING 7 / 10