Michael Segal

In our ever-expanding musical universe, there are many instrumental hotshots and technical triathletes who, despite their proficiency, lack any real, emotional potency in their playing. As anyone who's ever entered a Guitar Center can tell you, there are a dozen Joe Satrianis for every Jimi Hendrix; the jazz world is no different. So it resonates that much more deeply to hear musicians who can transmute their true essence in their playing. Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders is one such player, and whether he's coaxing warm sugar or spewing streams of harmonically gnarled fireworks from his horn, you can be assured that it's 100 percent from the heart.

This jazz legend was born Ferrell Sanders in 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that both his parents were music teachers, Sanders hesitated before applying himself to music, fancying himself a painter until finally discovering his voice on the clarinet and the tenor saxophone. His discovery of jazz music, especially horn giants like Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, led Sanders to move to Oakland to study music and hone his craft. He cut his teeth there until 1961 when he took the plunge into New York's vibrant and fiercely competitive jazz scene.

At first, life in the Big Apple was sour for Sanders, and the young musician struggled, hawking his instrument and spending sleepless nights in the subway for warmth. Soon, though, the horn player began to make his mark as a hard-bop powerhouse, gigging with jazz mavericks like Sun Ra and Don Cherry, and eventually leading his own quartet. It was at a performance by this group at New York's Village Gate that he caught the ear of John Coltrane, who drafted Sanders as an unofficial member of his own band. The two blowers' firebrand intensity pushed both beyond their individual limits, creating some of jazz's wildest and most unconventional moments, as heard on classic Coltrane albums such as Om and Live in Seattle.

After Coltrane's premature death in 1967, Sanders could have easily rested on his laurels, but instead he embarked on the most fertile phase of his career. The sax man continued a creative partnership with his mentor's widow, Alice Coltrane, and the insistent howling of Pharoah's horn proved an excellent foil to her exotic harp and piano washes.

No doubt inspired by the reality-bending forms of the psychedelic era, Sanders began to mingle the no-holds-barred dynamism of his previous work with a transcendentalist stew of Eastern, Latin, and seemingly extraterrestrial influences. His albums from that time—including Karma (1969), Black Unity (1971), Thembi (1971), and Elevation (1973)—are an Afro-cosmic whirlwind of sitars, flutes, ballophones, and tempestuous chants. Throbbing, bass-driven vamps chug through a fog of birds and bells, only to be consumed by surges of white-hot saxophone freak-outs. Karma is generally Sanders's most lauded album, and rightly so. The record's epic two-parter, "The Creator Has a Master Plan," is a free-form odyssey of hypnotic Nubian empowerment and exhilaratingly cacophonous percussion. This is some of the most deeply spiritual music ever recorded, and as undeniably psychedelic as any flower-power rock band—yet created without the aid of studio trickery. There is indeed true shamanism in the man's music. As one frequently told jazz legend has it, Sanders could make his saxophone hum for minutes after if left his lips.

The following 30-plus years have found Sanders to be a stylistic chameleon, much like his more recognized peer, Herbie Hancock. The late '70s and '80s brought high-sheen, fusion-funk outings, and the following decade a return to form with the satisfying world-music mash of 1996's Message from Home. Collaborative future-dub voyages with Public Image Limited bass player Jah Wobble and bassist/producer Bill Laswell on 1998's Chakra: The Seven Centers, were equally fruitful.

It's difficult to know what to expect from Sanders at this rare live performance, but it would be safe to predict the unpredictable. In this sad age when few of the great jazz pioneers exist on this plane beyond their well-loved recordings, you owe it to yourself to tap into Sanders's heartfelt musical dimension while you still can.

editor@thestranger.com