Legend of the Pharoah
“ There are so many ways to write a tune, concept, tempos, but you have to be well-equipped, you have to have that much knowledge to communicate with someone else. ”
By Jennifer Odell
After a recent performance of Before the Blues , a new ballet by the Lines Ballet Company, someone from the audience asked choreographer Alonzo King where he got the idea to pair a Pharoah Sanders composition with music by the baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli.
"It was odd that people think in such boxes," said King, who has commissioned Sanders to score two other ballets in the past ten years. "It's the same kind of architecture, structure and division of space that Corelli is."
The ballet, which opened to great reviews in November in San Francisco, "is about how striking the similarity is between people as opposed to the differences," says King, who once lived across 75th Street from Sanders on the Upper West Side.
Over the course of five decades or so, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, 64, has never been afraid to change it up. He has employed bands with yodelers, sitars, tablas, ouds and kotos and has recorded long squawking vamps, ballads, "cosmigroove" and even disco. But the common denominator has always been the spiritual energy that fuels his improvisation. It's an energy that seems to be predicated on a human intuition, a natural sense of human relationships and languages as they relate to pure feeling. This winter, two projects - a trio with Kenny Garrett and Jeff "Tain" Watts and music from Before the Blues - provide New Yorkers with a glimpse of that driving spirit. "It's the way you feel inside," Sanders said recently from his home in Los Angeles. "The spirit tells me what to do and that's it."
From December 1st-5th at Iridium, that energy will meet its alto match in Kenny Garrett, who says that playing with Sanders comes naturally because their music shares so many similarities: "It comes from the same source," says Garrett. That source, of course, is the spiritual improvisation associated with Coltrane, who picked Sanders to join him on a series of late classic Impulse! recordings, including Ascension (1965) and Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (1966). Both Sanders and Garrett paid homage to 'Trane in the '90s with tribute recordings. Tracks on Sanders' Crescent With Love (Evidence, 1992) and Garrett's Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane (Warner Bros., 1996) are likely to make their way onto the stage at Iridium this month. But the similarities go beyond the common interest in Coltrane: Garrett and Sanders share a language based on feeling.
Last September, Sanders, Garrett and Jeff "Tain" Watts blew away crowds at the Blue Note. Critics said it was one of Pharoah's best recent performances. Though he hung back on certain tunes, moments like the free improv he played in "2 Down and 1 Across" had an intensity that appeared to astound even Garrett, the song's author. "His ideas, the way he thinks about what he's going to play, the sound," says Garrett. "It's about the feel as opposed to being academic."
But with Sanders, it's not quite that black and white. His improvisation is based on a carefully learned language, and academia is in his blood. Growing up in Little Rock, Ark., both of his parents taught music for a living. After high school, Ferrell (his given name) studied art and music at Oakland Junior High. When he came on the New York scene in the early '60s - known as "Little Rock" after his hometown - Sun Ra took an interest in his style and took him under his wing, where another kind of education ensued.
"We all studied under Sun Ra," said Marshall Allen , who still lives in Philly, where he has directed the Arkestra since 1993. Allen went on to explain how just preparing for a gig with Sun Ra was a mental exercise in itself. There was the sense that "in this band you should learn all the music," Allen said. "Because Sun Ra, if you have learned, say, ten pieces he might not call any of that. The way he runs his band sharpens your mind."
Sanders believes that education is key, pointing out that even in so-called "free jazz", there "ain't nothin' free. If you've got the knowledge, then you're really free. I think youngsters should go to school [for music]," he says. "You use it for reference. There are so many ways to write a tune, concept, tempos, but you have to be well-equipped, you have to have that much knowledge to communicate with someone else." Even then, sometimes communicating can be complicated, as he discovered when he began scoring music for Alonzo King's ballets.
King, a choreographer who has worked with Alvin Ailey, the Joffrey Ballet, the Dance Theater of Harlem and who has choreographed for companies from Frankfurt to Hong Kong, contacted Sanders when he first moved to Northern California. He explained that he had been a fan since he was a teenager and that in the '70s, they'd both lived on 75th Street between Columbus and Central Park. He asked if Sanders would be interested in composing a score for Ocean, a new ballet about "the broadness, diversity and depth of humanity," according to King. The themes were perfect matches for Sanders.