Many still see him as no more than one of John Coltrane’s faithful followers. However, the musician who’d come to be nicknamed ‘Little Rock’ (after his hometown in Arkansas where he was born on 13th October 1940) was able to transcend his teacher and create his own unique sound. A saxophone chorus, a distinctive cry, both rustic and lyrical. This evangelist of free jazz left an indelible mark on the face of Great Black music. ‘The Creator has a masterplan, peace and love for every men…’.
Celebrated by followers of esoteric jazz, considered a heretic in the sacrosanct temples of jazz orthodoxy, Pharoah Sanders conjures up everything that the African American music tradition had to offer. He cut his teeth on it all: a pupil of big band, he also played blues, rhythm’n’blues, and bebop, before moving onto ‘new thing’. At the turn of the 1960s he became an apostle of free jazz, playing with masters of the Sun Ra and Don Cherry style, and releasing his first record on the label ESP. He also began to accompany Coltrane, playing on his record Ascension in 1965.
It was around this time that our pharaonic tenor began to make records for Impulse! under his stage name. Tauhid, Karma, Black Unity, Jewels of Thought, Elevation – these titles tell us exactly what his quest is about. Spiritual forces and a universal sound are key, with Pharoah Sanders seeking only to communicate via supreme love, a theme that dwells in many of his compositions. Love is everywhere! His divine message hasn’t deviated since the 1980s when he shifted into a more disco-funk territory. It’s a real shame that we’re not able to give you a taste of this aspect of his sound with the album Journey to the One – a record long misinterpreted by the guardians of tradition. Yet its all there, radiating beauty, even down to the voice of a very young Bobby McFerrin who appears on this album as a sideman.
Since then the saxophonist has continued on this path, going through the classics, honouring Coltrane’s messianic memory, and rediscovering rhythms from before the deportation of slaves, such as with the syncretism found in the sounds of healing Gnaoua musicians. “Our Roots Began in Africa”, he proclaimed in the mid 1990s on Message From Home. This is also why we find him playing alongside the South African pianist Bheki Mseleku, and later on with the Guadeloupian Gwo Ka Masters, whose drums beat out the call of the ancients. Pharaoh, the everlasting spirit of the ancestors.