Report: Pharoah Sanders Live in Oakland

 

The creator brings his pre-Christmas master plan to
a packed (and intimate) Yoshi’s in Oakland,
California, December 22.

 

By Jud Cost

A living legend, Pharoah
Sanders hobbled stiffly up a handful of stairs at the left side of the stage of
Yoshi’s night club in Oakland,
Calif. and began blowing on a
modal original that could have been penned by his onetime mentor, John
Coltrane. Sanders’ sound has evolved over the years to the point where it’s
very similar to Coltrane now. It was thrilling to hear what can only be
described as the mantle being passed from one long-gone tenor sax legend
(Coltrane died in 1967) to another.

 

The last remaining member
of John Coltrane’s final band that also included Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy
Garrison on bass and drummer Rashied Ali, Sanders, who just turned 70, has
played solo gigs recently at San Francisco’s immense Grace Cathedral. It’s a
place where the effect of music echoing off the ancient ceiling, hundreds of
feet above the performer, almost becomes a second instrument, itself. The
six-second delay from sound rebounding back down to floor-level somewhat limits
the tempos of the material. 

 

But with a full band
tonight of William Henderson on piano, Nat Reeves on bass and drummer Joe
Farnsworth playing before a packed house in the intimate environs of Yoshi’s,
it seemed more like the last time I saw Coltrane (and the first time I saw
Sanders) at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop in the spring of 1966. A few patrons
that night, expecting to see Coltrane’s seminal, long-lived (by jazz standards)
quartet, featuring the grimacing, sweating Garrison on bass, the hypnotic,
left-hand-heavy piano of McCoy Tyner and the rolling thunder of drummer Elvin
Jones, were disappointed that the wheel had spun once again in Coltrane’s
musical/spiritual journey. In particular, Alice Coltrane replacing Tyner seemed
to some of the close-minded as serious an offense as the reaction two years
later of longtime fans who would blame Yoko Ono for breaking up the Beatles.

 

Dressed in a thigh-length
bright blue tunic and sporting an angular snow-white beard worthy of a ruler of
ancient Egypt,
Sanders (renamed “Pharoah” from his given name of Farrell, so the
legend goes, by none other than Intergalactic Arkestra leader Sun Ra) was in
fine form tonight. He dramatically punctuated certain passages with his
trademark, high-pitched, harmonic squeal that sounded like a hayloft full of
terrified rodents in a barn fire, then later swooped down to the bottom of his
horn’s register for a window-rattling honk or two, something like the thing
another Coltrane associate, Eric Dolphy, used to do on bass clarinet. For
anyone who’s never heard Coltrane and Dolphy (who died in 1964) play together,
their Olé (Atlantic)
longplayer is the perfect place to start.

 

At times, Sanders would
angle the neck of his horn upward, bend down and place it carefully on the
floor while retrieving a vintage rhythm instrument to accompany a solo by one
of the others. He sparingly used an industrial-strength tambourine-like shaker
and a well-worn, yuletide-friendly strand of sleigh bells. A large brass bowl
played with an oversized mallet, whose sound was so delicate that even the
standup bass canceled it out, was employed only after a lengthy coda had been
resolved.

 

High point of the evening may have been Sanders’ warm reading
of jazz standard “Body And Soul,” best known from Coleman Hawkins’
epic 1939 recording.

 

Like the recent appearance
of New Thing survivor Archie Shepp at San
Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, Sanders includes a vocal
turn in his current set. With the well-traveled pipes of a Delta bluesman,
Sanders belted out a few choruses of “I got the blues” to a wildly
appreciative house before winding things up much the way he’d started. Another
Coltrane-style modal blues, with Henderson
alternating Tyner’s chordal approach with some striking single-note runs,
wrapped up a perfect early Christmas present for any devotee of these
sanctified sounds.

 

Ornette Coleman once
hailed Sanders as “probably the best tenor sax player in the world.”
After playing with Coleman at Coltrane’s funeral service in 1967, another tenor
sax legend, Albert Ayler (who would also die prematurely in 1970) declared that
Coltrane was the father, Pharoah was the son and he was the Holy Ghost.
Tonight, Sanders assumed the complex role of all three.

 

 

 

 

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