3 February 2008
Though tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders has been performing and recording steadily for over half a century, most listeners associate him with the short period over forty years ago when he played alongside John Coltrane. During the intense final phase of Coltrane’s career, Sanders was Trane’s instrumental doppelganger in countless concerts and on nine Impulse! recordings, including the free-jazz masterpieces Ascension and Meditations.
As a second tenor voice during this ground-breaking, free-rhythm period, Sanders made a crucial contribution to one of the most significant moments in jazz history. Inevitably, he has been competing with that legacy ever since. In the decade and a half following Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders continued to search for musical meaning within the free structures and world music influences pioneered by his mentor. In the early eighties, he took a turn towards the mainstream, synthesizing what he had learned in the avant-garde with performances of the standard jazz repertoire.
Sanders’ performance at the Tripod in Dublin was an opportunity to assess how successfully he has managed this synthesis over a long career. Accompanied by his long-standing rhythm section – William Henderson on piano, Jackie McLean alumnus Nat Reeves on bass, and the dynamic Joe Farnsworth on drums – Sanders showed a packed and appreciative audience that he continues to blow with authority and ease while negotiating a complex set of influences and ambitions.
The debt to Trane was acknowledged from the opening note, when the quartet launched into Coltrane’s signature tune ‘My Favorite Things’. As it would throughout the evening, the rhythm section laid down a solid groove that provided a hypnotic platform for Sanders’ lengthy, harmonically bold excursions, frequently punctuated by his trademark shrieks and honks and dissonant flurries. Henderson, who has been playing with Sanders for twenty-five years, is his ideal accompanist, using a fluent touch and bold delivery to anchor the music firmly in the blues Sanders loves so much.
The performance alternated between standards and more Coltrane material. ‘Ole’ built steadily and beautifully on the Spanish folk theme of its origin, and ‘Giant Steps’ matched the Coltrane original in complexity and power while adding a sweeping, hollering dimension all Sanders’ own. As the concert progressed, Sanders loosened up, shouting and clapping and encouraging the audience to join in as he concluded the gig with a relaxed, swinging version of ‘Save the Children.’ Reeves and Farnsworth swung relentlessly, with the drummer contributing several furious but structurally cogent solos.
All told, it was a very satisfying display by a master who has not always had the audiences he deserves but who has bravely built on the foundations of his revolutionary roots, continuing to explore world rhythms and shamanistic free playing in pursuit of a musical and spiritual depth at odds with the prevailing culture.
Published on 1 March 2008
Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.