Years Active: 56.
Provenance: Little Rock, Arkansas.
Essential Albums: Tauhid, Izipho Zam (My Gifts), Karma, Jewels of Thought, Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun), Thembi, Black Unity, Wisdom Through Music, Elevation, The Trance of Seven Colors (with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania).
Essential Songs: "Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt," "Japan," "The Creator Has a Master Plan," "Elevation," "Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah," "Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord," "Astral Travelling," "Thembi," "Red, Black & Green," "Summun Bukmun Umyun," "Love Is Everywhere," "Harvest Time," "You've Got to Have Freedom."
Influenced by: John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra.
Influence on: David S. Ware, Charles Gayle, John Zorn, Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, the Stooges, the MC5, the Flying Luttenbachers.
Precautions: Sanders's recent Seattle shows have found the jazz legend in less-than-robust form. At his 2014 Town Hall concert (which I missed), he reportedly needed to take frequent breaks. Bearing that in mind, don't expect the explosive fire music of the septuagenarian saxophonist's halcyon days. More likely, Triple Door audiences will be blessed by a more fragile but no less heartrending display of his melodic sensuality. With only pianist William Henderson accompanying Sanders, it's hard to imagine they'll charge into "The Creator Has a Master Plan," as Reggie Workman's bass line and Leon Thomas's yodeling are crucial to its uplift; plus, those free-form passages requiring monstrous lung power probably won't fly at this late date. Oh, well...
Why You Should Give a Fuck: Well, for one, Sanders wrote "The Creator Has a Master Plan," a totalizing treatise of sonic and lyrical jubilation that's been known to cause hardcore atheists to cry rivers of joy. (I could close the case right here, but I have a word count to meet.) If you're not familiar with this nearly-33-minute opus, which appears on 1969's Karma, get thee to a record store or streaming service posthaste. (Or just click the included embed.) In the canon of spiritual-jazz classics, "Master Plan" ranks right up there with John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," Alice Coltrane's "Journey in Satchidananda," Sonny and Linda Sharrock's "Black Woman," Don Cherry's "Malkauns," and Joe Henderson's "Earth." I play "Master Plan" whenever I need an emergency hit of the faith-restoring positivity that no organized religion or recreational drug could ever provide me. To paraphrase John Lennon: Karma's gonna get you, gonna knock you off your feet.
No doubt about it—Sanders's long game is unstoppable. In addition to "Master Plan," he waxes verbose with the beautifully kaleidoscopic odyssey "Elevation," the jaunty, ethno-jazz mood-elevator "Summun Bukmun Umyun," the peace-inducing, Leon Thomas–augmented hymn "Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah," the euphoric, quasi-R&B ramble of "Love Is Everywhere," and Black Unity, which consists of one mercurial 38-minute piece that encompasses a plethora of Pharoah's expansive gestures, including a muted quotation of "Master Plan." Nevertheless, when the mood strikes him, Sanders can pen a relatively concise, catchy tune, as "Colors" and "Thembi" prove. (A fellow disc jockey at the college radio station where I worked in the 1990s used the latter track as a sonic bed for a PSA, and it became one of the most memorable such clips that our station aired during that era.)
In his prime, Sanders's musical persona was that of the prince of peace, but he could turn on a dime and unleash bellicose sax blasts of such molten caliber that they fired the imaginations of proto-punk hard-rockers like the Stooges and the MC5. Pharoah had the capacity to embroil your brain in battlefield hysteria with his wails or shatter your heart with motifs of extreme tranquility—usually within the same song. He stands as a master of dynamics, pouring on the artful chaos or scaling back to spare serenity with the verve of an expert emotion-manipulator.
In addition to his many essential albums as a leader, Sanders has served as a sideman for both John and Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Don Cherry, Sonny Sharrock, McCoy Tyner, and many others. You should seek out any record with Pharoah's name in the credits, as his irrepressible spirit elevates any studio session in which he appears.