Music Calendar

Pharoah Sanders

Jazz Saxophone Legend


“These are the first local performances by saxophone giant Pharaoh Sanders in about 15 years, a rare opportunity to catch a highly influential and enduring jazz tenor player whose living peers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Although Sanders, 72, has a rich catalog of recordings as a leader, he will always be renowned for his seminal work with John Coltrane in the mid-’60s, when that icon was deep into his revolutionary free-jazz experiments. The luminous authority of Sanders’s harmonically rich tenor was as effective igniting the ferocious, abstract, squally splendor of Coltrane at his avant-garde peak as it would subsequently prove to be on his own more spiritual endeavors and ballad work. Sanders hasn’t recorded much in recent years, following a few albums with Bill Laswell’s Material crew around the turn of the century. Here, Sanders’s quartet will include his longtime keyboardist, William Henderson, versatile Chicago bassist Dennis Carroll, and local master drummer Eric Kamau Grávátt. Sanders will likely dig out some Coltrane nuggets along with signature explorations of mind-expanding lyricism like 1969’s “The Creator Has a Plan.”” —Rick Mason, City Pages preview

Pharoah Sanders possesses one of the most distinctive tenor saxophone sounds in jazz. Harmonically rich and heavy with overtones, Sanders’ sound can be as raw and abrasive as it is possible for a saxophonist to produce. Yet, Sanders is highly regarded to the point of reverence by a great many jazz fans. Although he made his name with expressionistic, nearly anarchic free jazz in John Coltrane’s late ensembles of the mid-’60s, Sanders’ later music is guided by more graceful concerns.

The hallmarks of Sanders’ playing in the 1960s were naked aggression and unrestrained passion. In the years after Coltrane’s death, however, Sanders explored other, somewhat gentler and perhaps more cerebral avenues, without sacrificing any of the intensity that defined his work as an apprentice to Coltrane.

Pharoah Sanders was born into a musical family in Little Rock, AK, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1961, Sanders moved to New York, where he struggled. Unable to make a living with his music, Sanders took to pawning his horn, working non-musical jobs, and sometimes sleeping on the subway. During this period he played with a number of free jazz luminaries, including Sun Ra, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins.

In 1964, Coltrane asked Sanders to sit in with his band. The following year, Sanders was playing regularly with the Coltrane group. Coltrane’s ensembles with Sanders were some of the most controversial in the history of jazz. Their music represents a near total desertion of traditional jazz concepts, like swing and functional harmony, in favor of a teeming, irregularly structured, organic mixture of sound for sound’s sake. Strength was a necessity in that band, and as Coltrane realized, Sanders had it in abundance.

Sanders made his first record as a leader in 1964. After John Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders worked briefly with his widow, Alice Coltrane. From the late 1960s, he worked primarily as a leader of his own ensembles.

In the decades after his first recordings with Coltrane, Sanders developed into a more well-rounded artist, capable of playing convincingly in a variety of contexts, from free to mainstream. Some of his best work is his most accessible. As a mature artist, Sanders discovered a hard-edged lyricism that has served him well.

Facts about the Artist

  • Emerging from John Coltrane’s groups of the mid-1960s Sanders is known for his overblowing, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques on the saxophone.
  • Sanders is an important figure in the development of free jazz; Albert Ayler famously said: “Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost.”
  • He received his nickname “Pharoah” from bandleader Sun Ra, with whom he was performing. After moving to New York, Sanders had been destitute: “[H]e was often living on the streets, under stairs, where ever he could find to stay, his clothes in tatters. Sun Ra gave him a place to stay, bought him a new pair of green pants with yellow stripes (which Sanders hated but had to have), encouraged him to use the name ‘Pharoah’, and gradually worked him into the band.”
  • Sanders came to greater prominence playing with John Coltrane’s band, starting in 1965, as Coltrane began adopting the avant-garde jazz of Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Coltrane’s later style was strongly influenced by Sanders.

What Other People Have Been Saying...

“Probably the best tenor player in the world.” -Ornette Coleman

“Pharoah is a man of large spiritual reservoir, always trying to reach out to truth. He’s trying to allow his spiritual self to be his guide. He’s dealing, among other things, in energy, in integrity, in essences.” -John Coltrane

“The “jazz” label is really too restrictive for Sanders, but it has provided the foundation that has taken him all over the world” – Jonathan Curiel, KQED Arts, Read the full article here

“it is Sanders who has most often used the innovations of John Coltrane’s later career as his starting point to uniquely shape his individual expression.” – Graham Reid, Read the full article here

“His music ranges from down and dirty blues to post-bop to afro-centric spiritual  gospelized jazz (my favorite period) to free jazz/avant-garde.” – The Urban Politico, Read the full article here

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