Music

Pharoah Sanders - discovering an elusive jazz gem

The reissue of a rare and misunderstood jazz classic is a chance to appreciate another side of the tenor saxophonist

Pharoah Sanders in a white hat and shirt

Image: Rob Miseur / Courtesy of Centro Studi A. Polillo - Siena Jazz

Pharoah Sanders, a titan of the spiritual jazz movement, passed away last autumn, having recently enjoyed a resurgence of mainstream interest in his free form, ethereal sound.

Sanders played tenor sax in John Coltrane’s questing mid-’60s groups, and continued brandishing that torch of meditative, provocative music after Coltrane died in 1967. Sanders kept me company during my lazy, listless student years and again during 2020’s lockdown when an abundance of free time gave me an opportunity to really sit with his records and let them sink in. In 2021 Sanders, British producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra created a minimalist, tranquilising album together called  Promises, released on the Luaka Bop label and nominated for a Mercury Prize.  

Luaka Bop, founded by David Byrne in 1988, are continuing to champion Sanders posthumously, recently announcing a reissue of his sought after 1977 album Pharoah. Eric Welles-Nyström, who was responsible for the label’s 2013 campaign to shed light on the music of (then obscure) Nigerian electronic musician William Onyeabor, tells me the project came about after he first saw Sanders playing live. 

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“I didn’t know as much about him at the time,” he tells me, “but [I] was blown away… and then kind of fell in love with him as a person. When we started touring together we slowly became close – I would help sort food and other things on the road. Then I started visiting him in LA and over the years we became closer, and what became the collaboration with Floating Points took shape.” 

Pharoah is a warm, cordial record, with the laid-back atmosphere of a ‘back to mine’ jam session, owing partly to the lack of traditional percussion. The opening track, Harvest Time, feels fresh and spontaneous, with the affable momentum of an after-party conversation around the kitchen table. It’s hard to imagine but, according to producer Bob Cummins, the album almost sounded completely different. 

Yale Evelev, president of Luaka Bop, tells me: “Cummins had a small hobby jazz record label in NYC. He wanted to record the downtown NYC jazz scene in the late 1970s, which few people were recording. Sanders’ record label Impulse! had stopped functioning and he was out of a deal.

“Bob offered to record a small duo record with Sanders and he said yes. But then showed up at Bob’s house (where Bob recorded) with quite a few people hoping to make a rock record! Needless to say Bob was in over his head.”  Sanders was disappointed, but Cummins encouraged him to rethink the project and try again. 

“Pharoah came back a month later and brought a much smaller band, just Tisziji Muñoz on guitar, Steve Neil on bass and Pharoah’s wife at the time, Bedria, who he asked to play harmonium, though she’d never even seen one before. The rest is history.” 

Despite an appearance, on stage and in recordings, of a total conviction in his music, Sanders was self-critical and never quite certain of his accomplishments. He was particularly ambivalent about Pharoah, rarely speaking publicly about the album, which created two points of contention: an obstruction to Luaka Bop’s enthusiasm to reissue it, and a cult interest in the record which led to bootlegs. “This upset Pharoah so much,” Wells-Nyström tells me. “It would almost make it impossible to talk about – his stomach would turn in knots and his face would drain of colour. It really caused him a lot of stress.” 

Eventually, having built up enough trust with Sanders during the Floating Points collaboration, Luaka Bop were given his blessing to reissue the release, and even discussed performing it live. 

Sanders passed away before that could happen, but the label have instead drafted several masterful musicians, among them Irreversible Entanglements, Domenico Lancellotti and original guitarist Muñoz, to perform a series of live shows reinterpreting the recording. 

The Harvest Time Project begins with a workshop on 14 October, what would have been Sanders’ 83rd birthday. Evelev tells me: “We wanted to do something that expands on the album. Brings it to life and yet does not try to recreate it, but instead do something new. We aren’t trying to ‘cover’ the piece of music, instead use it as a launching pad to reinvent the piece and create a new work, ever changing and challenging as Pharoah was himself.” 

Pharoah cover

It will be a thrill for those who already love Sanders’ music to finally have access to this mythical recording, and the opportunity to hear it live. No doubt it will also turn new ears towards an exceptional album that was almost lost in the ether, and almost never came to be.  

Pharoah is out on 15 September on Luaka Bop.  Find more information on The Harvest Time Project here

Deb Grant is a radio host and music critic

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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