Remembering Pharoah Sanders

October 13, 1940 – September 24, 2022

A tribute to the passionate tenor-saxophonist

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Tenor-saxophonist Pharoah Sanders passed away on Sept. 24, 2022 at the age of 81.

He was born as Farrell Sanders on Oct. 13, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas and started playing music on clarinet in church, switching to tenor while in high school.

Sanders started his career sitting in with r&b and jazz groups that were passing through Little Rock in the late 1950s.

He spent some time living in Oakland during 1959-60, studying art and music at Oakland City College and freelancing with various groups.

Sanders moved to New York in 1961, struggled a bit, played with r&b groups, and was encouraged to use the name “Pharoah” by Sun Ra.

Sanders made his recording debut with Don Cherry in 1963, recorded with Paul Bley and Sun Ra the following year, Ornette Coleman (on Chappaqua Suite) in 1965, and led his first album in 1964 for the ESP label; on the latter he displayed the influence of John Coltrane of an earlier era while also giving hints of his own musical personality.

Sanders became famous as a new member in John Coltrane’s group in mid-1965, recording with Coltrane on Ascension, Live In Seattle, Om, Kulu Se Mama, and Meditations.

His playing with Coltrane was considered controversial since they were ferocious, intense and somewhat violent, building up his solos from the passionate level on which ‘Trane concluded his.

Sanders remained with the group when it became a quintet in 1966 with pianist Alice Coltrane, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Rashied Ali.

Pharoah Sanders remained with John Coltrane’s group until the latter’s passing in mid-1967; during that period he made two more albums with Don Cherry and signed as a leader with the Impulse label; recording Tauhid.

While Sanders was for a time stereotyped as a screamer on his instrument, he was always fully capable of embracing ballads and playing standards in addition to being an influential pioneer in what was called spiritual jazz, alternating tender and intense passages over repetitive vamps.

He recorded with Alice Coltrane, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and Gary Bartz but had his greatest success with his own Karma album, highlighted by the 30-minute “The Creator Has A Master Plan” which co-starred singer Leon Thomas.

Sanders also recorded such albums for Impulse during the era as Jewels Of Thought, Iziphon Zam, Deaf Dumb Blind, Thembi, Black Unity, and Village Of The Pharoahs.

While Pharoah Sanders never had another hit like “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” he stayed active for many decades and showed more versatility than one might have expected from his Coltrane sessions, recording standards for the Theresa label in the 1980s yet playing with remarkable intensity on drummer Franklin Kiermyer’s Solomon’s Daughter album in 1994.

Among the more rewarding recordings of his later years were Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages (1991), Kenny Garrett’s Sketches Of Md (2009), and Charnett Moffett’s Music From Our Soul album (2015).

Here is Pharoah Sanders playing “After The Morning” in a duet with its composer pianist John Hicks.

-Scott Yanow


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