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Pharoah Sanders, the revered and influential tenor saxophonist who explored and pushed the limits of his instrument, including alongside John Coltrane in the 1960s, died Saturday morning in Los Angeles. His death was announced in a social media post by label Luaka Bop, which had released his famous 2021 album. promises and confirmed by a publicist who worked on the release. Sanders was 81 years old.
Spirit was the overwhelming force in Sanders’ music: it emanated from his tenor and soprano saxophones in fiery explosions or whispering shimmer, and it permeated his ensembles, which included several generations of improvisers equally willing to dig or sing. fly freely. “Sanders always had bands that could not only create an almost mystical lyrical Afro-Eastern world,” wrote one champion, poet and critic Amiri Baraka, “but [also] sweat burning fire music in the continuous broadcast of the so-called “energy music” of the 60s.
This combination of traits characterized Sanders’ defining solo work in the 70s on Impulse! Records, which had been Coltrane’s label, and was still a welcoming port for experimentalism. Among these albums are black unitconsisting of an improvisation of an album, and Thembiwhich propels a post-Coltrane language into the realm of Afrocentric groove.
Sanders’ best-known piece of music is “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” an expansive 1969 performance that culminates in a wailing cacophony but ends with a dynamic, soulful vocal chorus. Originally split on two sides of the 1969 LP Karmathe track was later released on CD as a single track, lasting almost 33 minutes.
Pharoah was born Ferrell Sanders on October 13, 1940 in Little Rock, Ark. Her love of music began at home, through her choirmaster grandfather. After high school—and a switch from clarinet to alto saxophone, before finally settling on tenor sax—Sanders moved to the West Coast around 1959, attending Oakland Junior College, expanding his musical palette and pursuing the horizon, seated with front-guard saxophonists like Sonny Simmons and Dewey Redman. There, Sanders met and befriended John Coltrane, although they would not work together until several years later.
In 1961 Sanders moved to New York, seeking to join the city’s thriving jazz scene, where Coltrane was a reigning figure. Sanders’ landing in New York was difficult, however, resulting in intermittent homelessness as he practiced, sporadically, with Sun Ra and his Arkestra. (Sun Ra, it is said, was the one who encouraged him to take the name Pharaoh.) Eventually he was forced to pawn his horn.
Sanders’ fortunes in New York slowly but surely reversed as he began a solo career, and by 1965 he was a member of what was to be Coltrane’s last quartet. Ascent, recorded in 1965 and released the following year, was a late turning point in the life of Coltrane and, by extension, Sanders, who would become known for using his instrument in new ways – anarchic and atonal. Last year, Impulse! released archive recording A supreme love: living in Seattle, recorded a few months later Ascent; it presents Sanders as an essential addition to Coltrane’s quartet, developing his most heralded musical statement. (Living in Seattle, a separate album recorded during the same engagement, had long been a touchstone for a vanguard left to chart the way forward after Coltrane’s death in 1967.)
Even given his pioneering work, Sanders downplayed his technical accomplishments in favor of the emotional resonance he sought. “I’m not much of a technical player myself,” Sanders explained in a 1995 interview. “I’m probably not an intellectual player like some other musicians. What I do is… express. That’s what I do.”
Sanders’ stature grew beyond jazz’s avant-garde space by becoming something of a spiritual elder, and his expressiveness survived in new contexts. In 2021, he released the album promises in collaboration with electronic musician Sam Shepherd, who records as Floating Points, and the London Symphony Orchestra which was widely and immediately hailed as one of the best of the year. A patient and meditative album, it sometimes seems like a structure built for the sole purpose of making Sanders’ voice and saxophone levitate.
For many years, the jazz establishment lagged behind the African-American community in appreciating Sanders’ work, especially outside of his affiliation with Coltrane. But the power of his example and the breadth of his music helped establish the cadre of a rising class of performers like tenor saxophonists Kamasi Washington, James Brandon Lewis and Nubya Garcia, and multi-reedist Shabaka Hutchings.
“I find it hard to consider Pharoah Sanders as an individual,” Hutchings wrote in an appreciation for black unit for The Vinyl Factory. “I intuitively view it as representative of a creative principle that centers communalism as the driving force from which spirit manifests through sound.”