Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Pharoah Sanders Quartet taps into the Spiritual at the Rialto in Atlanta

William Henderson(p);  Pharoah Sanders (ts); Nat Reeves (b) and Jason Brown (drms) at the Rialto Center 

Last night at the Georgia State University Rialto Center for the Arts here in Atlanta, a nearly sold out crowd came to hear a jazz legend. The spiritual saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and his quartet entered the Rialto stage to a standing ovation from a respectful crowd.  The blue dashiki-clad Sanders, now seventy-seven, wore a simple turned-around cap and his signature chin strap beard now snowy white. His movement was a bit less spritely then in years past as he hobbled onto the stage.

Sanders is one of the fathers of the avant-garde and free jazz movements of the nineteen sixties. His name is in the pantheon of free and avant-garde players like trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Tchicai and Archie Shepp and the pianist Cecil Taylor. But it was his association with futurist Sun Ra that brought him his moniker and the idea that he could freely express himself on his horn.  

Pharoah Sanders at sound check photo credit  James B. Ellison Jr.

Originally born Ferrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1940, it was Ra – himself born Herman Blount - who gave Sanders the new name Pharoah in the early sixties, when the young man was struggling to survive in New York City. His later association with the saxophonist John Coltrane would mark another turning point in Sanders’ career. The two can be heard on Coltrane’s Ascension, a pivotal album for the saxophone giant as well as eight other albums spanning the years 1965-1967. The relationship was symbiotic; Sanders long, emotional, overblown, often dissonant solos influencing Coltrane’s later playing and Coltrane’s spiritual quest influencing Sanders future musical direction.

In 1966 Sanders signed with the Impulse label and released his startling debut Tauhid. For me, Tauhid was a defining moment. More than any other music I had ever listened to, this album and Sanders’ playing could transport me into a state of transcendental bliss. It was a nuclear experience. I loved music but never thought it could transcend time and space. I thought it was my little secret but I soon found out that the music had the same effect on many others.

Sanders followed Tauhid with a series of spiritually uplifting albums and collaborations. His work on Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidanada and his own albums Karma and Thembi all followed eastern dominated musical and spiritual themes. His discography lists over thirty albums as a leader and countless performances as a collaborator.

I was anxious to attend his performance at the Rialto, and see if this seventy-seven- year-old icon could still bring that energy and emotional involvement to the music as I remembered it. 

Sanders’ band included his pianist William Henderson who first recorded with Sanders in 1983 and Hart School of Music educator/bassist Nat Reeves who often works with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett. The program originally called for the drummer Joe Farnsworth to be on the bandstand, but the drummer Jason Brown was brought in due to last-minute scheduling changes.

The set started off with bassist Reeves offering a bowed introduction to Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” from Coltrane’s Impressions album of 1966. Sanders’ evoking the meditative reflection with great tone and warmth. Drummer Brown using his soft mallets to make his cymbals shimmer.

The program went into a quicker paced Coltrane tune which I couldn’t identify but sounded like it was from the Giant Steps period. Here the band did the heavy lifting as they would do for most of the evening, as Sanders shuffled off stage after a brief but powerful solo. It was hard to tell if the septuagenarian was having difficulty standing as he moved very slowly on and off stage, his gait showing signs of a pronounced limp. His playing was brief, often only a few measures per song. Gone were the powerful overblows and the extended ventures into deep space, explorations that could last twenty minutes. Despite the brevity, when he took up his horn Sanders showed he still possessed that same command of tone and raw emotional vitality that earmarked his earlier work, even if it came with a more subdued physical power. Quality not quantity ruled the proceedings on this night.

His take on Coltrane’s “Naima” was a highlight, playing the emotional ballad with sublime sensitivity, occasionally adding some fluttering notes but with no dissonance. The saxophonist has shown a rare ability to channel something that goes beyond simple music and for a few moments he did so on "After the Rain" and “Naima.”

Pharoah Sanders photo by James B. Ellison Jr.

As the program progressed Sanders took a few opportunities to edge on drummer Jason Brown who seemed to be trying his best to hold his own in these unfamiliar waters.

On his own compositions, especially “The Creator has a Master Plan” and the encore “Ose Re Re” you could see the saxophonist became animated. He moved across the stage in a dance-like strut that belied his age. Sanders is one of those artist that feeds off his audience and he encouraged the crowd to chant along with him and make his “Creator has a Master Plan” into a communal experience. I found myself among those who willingly obliged.

Pianist Henderson chaired the group with a subdued refinement, playing some stirring passages that at times sounded very Tyner-esque. His ability to maintain lush fills or that drone effect that so often accompanied some of Sanders’ more spiritual music was impressive.  Reeves adapted his bass to the songs at hand using both pizzicato and arco techniques, keeping the sometimes-frantic beat pulsing or simply maintaining a sustained buzz. Brown did his best to maintain the swing, occasionally letting loose with a barrage of bombastic that seemed to appeal to the crowd.

At an after show gathering, I was able to get the taciturn Sanders to sign a copy of Tauhid that I had brought with me; my own personal highlight. Surrounded by his family this gentle, unassuming man proved a gracious artist who took the time to sign artifacts and take pictures with his adoring fans.

We are rarely given a chance to bear witness to a musician of the caliber and importance of Pharoah Sanders. He is one of those jazz masters that should be revered for his lasting contributions to the music and for his dedication to enriching our lives with his very spiritual offerings. The Georgia State University Rialto Center for the Arts its director Leslie Gordon and its jazz advisor Dr. Gordon Vernick should be applauded bringing Mr. Sanders to Atlanta. For anyone who has not yet seen him play live, what on earth are you waiting for?

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