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Meditations in Sound: The Jazz Africana of Pharoah Sanders

Exploring the realms of African mysticism, Pharoah Sanders walks an extraordinary path through the hinterland of jazz music's otherworld.

His auspicious start in music began as a homeless man, living on the streets of New York. Tenor saxophonist and revolutionary jazz musician Pharaoh Sanders moved from his native state of Arkansas to New York in 1961. Falling on hard times, he found himself out on the streets with nowhere to stay until a meeting with fellow jazzman Sun Ra set him on a path of musicianship and success.

Sanders is known today as an artist whose passionate, almost feral style of playing has redefined the saxophone as an instrument of visionary invention. After the crucial learning curve of performing in Sun Ra’s band, where Sanders would learn the ropes of interdisciplinary playing, the young saxophonist would later scale the heights of his creative potential as a band member of the late and legendary John Coltrane. Drawing meditative lines with his sax on two of Coltrane’s most celebrated efforts, Ascension (1966) and Meditations (1966), Sanders would begin to discover, in music, the spiritual dimensions and themes that Coltrane had been exploring at the time. Following Coltrane’s passing, he would continue an extraordinary path through the hinterland of jazz music’s otherworld.

Pharoah’s First (1965) is Sanders’ debut recording on the ESP label as a leader and it simply expands upon the lessons learned in his time spent with Coltrane’s band. Essentially an extension of the preliminary steps Ornette Coleman took on his album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Pharoah’s First is a safe excursion into the beginnings of free jazz, showcasing the mercurial screams of his saxophone with impressive colour. The sessions on the album, however, reveal a musician confined by the limits of a more conventional set-up; there’s an uncomfortable shifting within the restraints of the band and Sanders struggles to articulate his hunger for invention.

The far more curious and explorative Tauhid (1966) dips the proverbial toe into the creative and turbulent waters of discovery. Now finding a spiritual guide and home in the African continent, Sanders allows his jazz an open window to a new world of sounds, which include the akan drums and djembes. No longer bothered by the restrictions of convention, Sanders travels a course of rhythm here that re-appropriates its structure with every introduction of a new and different instrument. “Upper and Lower Egypt” are forceful currents of hybridized energy, combining a skilled and disciplined structure in playing and a wild and unfettered sense of rhythm. Unregulated by any constrictive ideas of musical communications, Sanders performs with the abandon of an artist who is perfectly willing to let anyone sit down at his table, provided that they eat what is being served with a clean palate and an open mind.

The year 1969 proved productive for the musician, turning out three indispensable works. Izipho Zam, Jewels of Thought and the magnum opus Karma inaugurated Sanders into the legion of jazz greats who have restructured and redefined the borders of jazz in the last 50 years or so. Progressing even further with his experiments in pan-African music, Sanders recorded Izipho Zam. Like Tauhid, Izipho Zam was also recorded on the Impulse! label and indulged in the soulfully blithe rhythms of African drums. Its signature track, “Prince of Peace”, has become a favourite and sample-gold for hip-hop acts.

Here, Sanders works from an intensely melodious pivot, interlocking pleasantly agreeable tunes with the cacophony of clattering percussion; his saxophone is the human cry in a spiritual storm of conspired sound, screaming and talking its way through the contiguous noise. Its title track, a shamanistic dirge, locates a very real heart at its center, the otherworldly guitar, keening yodels and raindrop percussion finding harmonious balance; Sanders’ sax narrates a story all its own, blowing melodic reminders all over the sonic terrain.

His next offering, Jewels of Thought, deeply explores the nimbus of African mysticism. With eyes closed and heart wide open, empyreal atmospheres are courted with almost religious fervour, the shrieks of brass ascending (sometimes falling down) the majestic stairways of celestial dimensions. On its opening track (one of the two featured in subsequent reissues) “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah”, a Sufi meditation, is given a gentle sway via a strangely proto-hip-hop rhythm, predating the genre by nearly ten years. A sparkling, lush melody supplied by the simple strokes of a piano gives Sanders the freefall width to send his sax notes sailing high into the stratospheres. Then there is the hollowed African percussion and Leon Thomas’ rippling yodels. It may have displeased jazz purists who didn’t care for a multi-national confederation of sound, but clearly Sanders was having fun.

The album’s second track, the astrologically-themed “Sun in Aquarius” (a motif continued from Tauhid’s “Capricorn Rising”), unfurls with the notes of a thumb piano, which scatter like jewels. Making a stormy mess with the noise of saxophones, bass clarinets and the combined squalls of the piano and drums, “Sun in Aquarius” exorcises not demons but the seraphs deeply rooted in the songs of earth. Sanders, in restless temperament here, does away with the mathematics of logic and process; his work is down to an emotion invested purely in risk.

The masterstroke of Karma can be seen as the bookended answer to Coltrane’s two God-themed albums, Ascension and Meditations, both of which Sanders appears on. Regarded as Sanders’ best work, Karma employs the alternately confused and clear language of sound to chart spiritual movements, from the body to the outerworld and beyond.

The album’s most distinguished and celebrated number, “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, is Sanders’ calling card, having now passed into status both legendary and fêted. A half hour opus that begins fluidly, the track unfolds generously, with the supple and expressive turns of the tenor sax, leading the way to the peaceful rhythms which carry the number on its first third of the psychic journey. A little past the two-minute mark, a solid rhythm sets in and the additions of flutes, piano, Leon Thomas’ vocals and the loose rattles of percussion signal the way to an extrasensory elevation. In its second third, the structure collapses in a heap of complete hysterics before the rhythm once again reforms to become a hurried and joyful gait. There are storms along the way, sudden outbursts of screaming dissonance before a calm lapse that follows in the final third.

Sanders could have signed off on the ecstatic note of Karma and he would have left an indelible mark in jazz music history. But a newer interest in other musical cultures led the artist further East, employing sounds from the Indian subcontinent. Still using African music as a reference point, Sanders would turn out works of sheer inspiration, imaginative conundrums which had the artist finding a seductively lush home in the rhythms of African djembes, Indian tablas and Middle Eastern darbukas.

On the deeply Afro-centric Black Unity (1971), the artist combines African drumming and Latin percussion with a sly dip toward the blues. A chatty dance of bluesy upright basslines, Chinese harps, congas, the balafon (African xylophone) and the liquid fire of Sanders’ saxophones intimate a ferocious intensity of pure joy. It’s untidy and rough, but equally cosmopolitan in its ethnic confluence of styles.

Thembi (1971), an album named after Sanders’ daughter, discovers a center of luxurious calm, with the chilled, lush ripples of African percussion spreading effortlessly across the terrains of sound. Its key numbers, the title-track and “Morning Prayer” find freedom and serenity in discipline. There’s less of Sanders’ volatile sax playing but more of the new dimensional explorations of woodwinds and piano that search and scout the perimeters of the artist’s ever-expanding free jazz. Sanders would continue the lateral move of delving further into the Africana center of his influences, taking root in the very essence of African ancestry.

His follow-up to Thembi, Wisdom Through Music (1972), trades on a curious design of pop music and classical Indian ragas, the African percussion still keeping time with the other global rhythms. A number like “High Life” finds elegance in humour and expends classy strains of co(s)mic sound. Indian ragas turn up again on 1974’s Village of the Pharoahs, sharing equal measure with the African influences. The title-track (divided into three parts), simmers and boils with the flavours of the East, the hypnotic Carnatic pools spiced with the mystic shuffles of African drums.

Further work on Elevation (1974) would continue to evaluate Sanders’ strengths as an artist of ingenuity, and soon the musician would move beyond the borders of jazz to explore quiet storm on 1977’s Love Will Find a Way, an album that would point the way to his dalliances with American soul music. In the years following, Sanders would continue to experiment and test boundaries, achieving collaborative fulfillment on projects with famed bass-players Jah Wobble and Bill Laswell, quiet storm diva Phyllis Hyman and violinist and alternative world-pop artist Lili Haydn.

Today, the deeply spiritual pivot from which Sanders’ works are instilled continues to spin with the renewable force of love and inspiration. At the time of writing, Sanders is 74 and still carrying on assiduously, playing shows and inventing new shapes in the conceptions of new sound. A recent show at Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival in 2014 presents a man, now in his twilight years, who has channelled energy from every dimension of possibility – whether it be the global spirits that live in song, or the ones housed in human hearts.

On a learning curve that is seemingly endless, Sanders keeps his aim fixed and the lateral processions in sound moving onwards, the spiritual ends to a mysterious means drawing nearer to its unforeseen conclusion. In the ringing of drums and saxophones, comes a language of splendour: “Happiness through all the land.” Wisdom through music, indeed.