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.
The Lines company has worked with other composers and musicians, including Zakir Hussain, Bernice Johnson Reagon and oud master Hamza Al Din, so the dancers have had no trouble finding their way through Sanders' scores. The instrumentation in Ocean includes Tibetan bowls, an oud, chanting and a Middle Eastern shawm, while the music for Three Stops From Home involved rich, emotional textures with plenty of strings, according to reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle. "We worked together on ideas, making them clear through music and movement," King explained. "Because they're not different to me. Dancers are musicians and vice versa, musicians are dancers. They're making music with their bodies and musicians have to move to make music."
Faced with the problem of making that music, Sanders found a spiritual approach to the task at hand. "I thought about the dancers before I even got started because I know Alonzo's concept level of ballet," he said. "I thought I needed something where they can make those moves. The music has to be the mood of the dancers instead of what I would normally play. It's like the ancient Egyptians, they played music by their feeling." The ballet opened in 1994 and was such a success that King commissioned Sanders to write music for another work, Three Stops On the Way Home , which premiered in 1997.
Before the Blues , the third score Lines has commissioned, opens at New York University's Skirball Center on January 18th. Though he played the music for Ocean and Three Stops On the Way Home live, scheduling conflicts will prevent Sanders from performing at the shows. There may be another chance to see him play alongside a ballet, though. He was so prolific in composing the latest piece that he wrote enough music for two ballets in the course of writing for one, King said.
On the bandstand, he's been less prolific in recent years, often drawing more attention for sitting out than sitting in. A few years ago, after the release of Save the Children (Verve), Sanders' performance at Alice Tully Hall confounded some critics. Ben Ratliff of the New York Times wrote, "He barely contributed anything to his own concert." Mixed reviews have followed. But the truth is that Sanders, long enamored of African and Eastern influences, has always relied pretty heavily on his rhythm section, allowing them to play more out front than, for example, a player like Sonny Rollins or George Coleman. For Sanders, the music is all that matters and if he doesn't have something to add, he doesn't mind stepping back, even as the leader.
"He doesn't have to prove anything," said Garrett. "If there's something he felt, he'd say it." If last year's performance is any indication, Garrett and Sanders inspire plenty of feeling in one another. As of mid November, they had not yet had the chance to discuss plans for the Iridium sets, but playing by ear didn't seem to be a problem last time. They both simply played what they felt. "Pharoah's the truth," Garrett says. "And I like to be on the same bandstand as what I see as the truth."
– John Coltrane - Kulu Se Mama (Impulse!, 1965)
– Pharoah Sanders - Karma (Impulse!, 1969)
– Alice Coltrane - Journey in Satchidananda (Impulse!, 1970)
– Pharoah Sanders - Journey to the One (Theresa-Evidence, 1980)
– Sonny Sharrock - Ask The Ages (Axiom, 1991)
– Franklin Kiermyer - Solomon's Daughter (Evidence, 1994)
Pharoah Sanders Fan Site