Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Pharoah Sanders, Whose Saxophone Was a Force of Nature, Dies at 81


Pharoah Sanders, the influential tenor saxophonist whose groundbreaking 1960s and ‘70s work was the cornerstone of spiritual jazz, died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 81.

Sanders’ career stretched from 1961, when the Little Rock, Ark., native (born Farrell Sanders) arrived in New York after a couple of years in Oakland and worked with Sun Ra, to last year’s  Promises, which he recorded with the electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra; the album was acclaimed as one of the year’s best.

His association with John Coltrane in the tenor sax legend’s final group gave Sanders a foundation in the avant-garde, where his soaring and fiery expressiveness on the instrument established him as a new force in the music. He recorded the album Ascension (Impulse!) with Coltrane and was part of his touring band from 1965 until Coltrane’s death in 1967; his groundbreaking work can be heard on the Coltrane concert recordings Live in Seattle and last year’s archival release, A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle.

After Coltrane’s death, Sanders continued to record for Impulse!, releasing his best-known work, The Creator Has a Master Plan, in 1969. He recorded extensively for Impulse! from 1967 to 1974, exploring African styles and full-on improvisation; it was not uncommon for his albums to have but one or two tracks.

Besides his work as a leader, he recorded from the 1960s into the 2010s with Don CherryAlice ColtraneRandy WestonKenny GarrettIdris MuhammadSonny Sharrock and others. Sanders won a Grammy for 1987’s Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane that featured McCoy Tyner and other Coltrane associates plus the saxophonist David Murray.

While his prodigious output slowed as the decades wore on, Sanders continued to explore new territory in his music, most notably with his 1996 Bill Laswell-produced album for VerveMessage From Home, and 2000’s Spirits, an album that was solely Sanders and percussionists.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, when promising young jazz musicians were taking up the mantle of bebop and hard bop that preceded Sanders, his raw, aggressive style and influence fell out of favor. Over the last decade, though, his influence is considerable in the works of artists such as Kamasi Washington and Shabaka Hutchings.

“I play very free,” Sanders told Pollstar in 2019. “Other saxophone players, they know I don’t even worry about chord progressions or anything like that. I use my ear and I just play what I want to play, even now.”

He named an NEA Jazz Master in 2016.

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