Pharoah Sanders, who died last year at the age of 81, was the last great survivor of spiritual jazz, a saxophonist who filtered the teachings of his mentors Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane into his own distinctive voice. He’s best known for his unorthodox “extended techniques”: making noises from the tenor saxophone in ways it wasn’t designed for. His most distinctive was overblowing – honking into his mouthpiece so hard that the instrument would massively distort, creating multiple notes, as if playing through a distortion pedal. It was never a gimmick: these shrieks and howls seemed to be part of a mystical quest, a constant need for exploration. It’s why Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, who collaborated with Sanders on the saxophonist’s Mercury-nominated final album, Promises, described his playing as “a megaphone to his soul”.
This previously unreleased 1980 recording comes from a gig accompanying his album of the same year, Journey To The One. At the time, Pharoah Sanders doing an LP of ballads might have sounded as insane as, say, Napalm Death doing an LP of ambient music. Yet it works because Sanders doesn’t really change his approach: even on the mellowest numbers he is still wailing in tongues, screaming and yodelling through the sax. An eight-minute version of “The Creator Has A Masterplan” features plenty of ecstatic overblowing, circular breathing and other extended techniques: you can hear him making ambient noises by humming into the bell of the sax, biting the mouthpiece and amplifying the clicking of the sax keys. But such techniques were only part of his arsenal: this album shows him dancing around the range of his tenor sax in the style of Sonny Rollins, leaping from basslines to high-pitched shrieks, like a man having a furious argument with himself. And his playing on a 13-minute version of “It’s Easy To Remember” – an old Rodgers & Hart ballad that John Coltrane covered – is often almost indistinguishable from Trane’s.
There’s a big-swinging, 18-minute version of the future club classic “You Gotta Have Freedom” (where he sounds like he’s ululating through a fuzzbox) and a 20-minute version of the modal jazz piece “Dr Pitt”. Both feature lengthy, rippling, staggeringly inventive solos from pianist John Hicks, who constantly has to keep up with Sanders’ trance-like improvisations. The finale, “Greetings To Idris”, is a rhythmically complex piece featuring plenty of interplay between drummer Idris Muhammad and closely-mic’d bassist Curtis Lundy.
It’s important to remember that, by 1980, it was only the European festival circuit which was keeping jazz alive, in those barren years between the electric advances of the early ’70s and the late-’80s jazz revival. It’s a treat to hear long-lost archive sessions like this, documenting a music that was in danger of dying out in its own country.