How Pharoah Sanders Beckoned the Gods on the Intimate ‘Pharoah’

In trying to capture what lay at the powerful core of the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’s music, the British journalist Valerie Wilmer once referenced a conversation with a Nigerian composer. “In all ritual song there is that slow beat, trying to call the gods,” the (unnamed) musician had told her. “There’s no rush. It’s a slow process, as though one is praying.”

“Pharoah Sanders,” Wilmer declared, achieved “precisely this mood” in the music he made in the late 1960s and ’70s, just before and then after his mentor, John Coltrane, died.

Sanders generally used large ensembles to get there, with horns, mixed percussion and multiple basses cracking open the firmament over incantatory grooves. But in summer 1976, after parting ways with Impulse! Records — “the house that Trane built,” and his home for more than a decade — he dialed down. He traveled with his wife Bedria and a small band to a rustic studio in upstate New York, and recorded what would become one of his most intimate and serene works, titled simply “Pharoah.”

Made in the weeks leading up to what would have been Coltrane’s 50th birthday, the album includes the highlight “Harvest Time,” 20 minutes and all of Side A, with Bedria on harmonium and a restful prayer coming from Sanders’s saxophone. Released in limited batches on LP the following year, and then in a small run of CDs in the 1990s, “Pharoah” has been passed around for decades mostly as a bootleg. For those who have experienced it, the album often becomes a touchstone. Sanders’s work can feel so grand, so tapped-in, so collectively powerful, it’s hard to isolate his expression within the fray. The saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings once wrote that he found it “difficult to regard Pharoah Sanders as an individual,” meaning this as a deep compliment. But not so on “Harvest Time.”

One person who felt this record’s formative influence was Sam Shepherd, the multi-hyphenate musician who records as Floating Points. He released a collaborative album, “Promises,” with Sanders in 2021, the year before the saxophonist died at 81. If you’d heard “Harvest Time,” you could easily recognize that the expansive, high-contrast “Promises” was written in conversation with it.

Sanders and Sam Shepherd, the electronic musician and composer known as Floating Points, during the recording of the album “Promises” in Los Angeles in 2019.Credit…Eric Welles-Nyström

“Promises” came out on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint, and Shepherd urged the label to think about reissuing “Pharoah” next. Then they learned about the existence of some live recordings of “Harvest Time” from a 1977 European tour. This Friday it all comes out as a remastered vinyl set, in a creatively packaged box that includes a bonus LP with two live versions of “Harvest Time.”

Sanders had been at Coltrane’s right hand for the last two years of the bandleader’s career, when his music turned explosive and totally free. In 1968, the poet and critic Amiri Baraka wrote that he could envision Sanders “coming through the desert to claim what I think will be his. His birth rite, as left to him, by Trane, his own true father.” Man, expectations.

Sanders handled it by making the music the focus, not his role within it. “He was very humble, quiet, liked to listen,” the guitarist Tisziji Muñoz, who recorded the indelible guitar accompaniment on “Harvest Time,” said in an interview. “But he had a strong viewpoint. If he had to tell you something, you’d have to be prepared for it.”

Greg Bandy, the drummer on “Pharoah” and a longtime Sanders collaborator, said that when the saxophonist did speak, his words had magnitude. “He used to say, ‘Tell about the one that made us all!’ And that’s how it went. What can you say about that? That’s a mouthful of information,” Bandy said in an interview. “Pharoah was just naturally born with the spirit.”

Born in 1940 in Little Rock, Ark., Sanders arrived in New York in the early 1960s, by way of a Bay Area blues and jazz scene that had more or less rejected him. “You should go play in New York,” he remembered people telling him. “Learn all the standard songs, get your tuxedo and learn how to work — learn how to live this kind of life.”

Sanders in Frankfurt in 2013. “Pharoah” was made in the weeks leading up to what would have been his mentor John Coltrane’s 50th birthday.Credit…Manfred Roth/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

That’s not exactly how it went. In New York, the blues came to him. Sanders lived without an address for over two years, but he developed a reputation on the avant-garde, and a lifestyle centered on wellness and music. He practiced yoga with the saxophonist Marion Brown, and carried a jar of whole wheat germ in his saxophone bag.

Sanders became known for changing his saxophone reeds as often as his side musicians, forever seeking the perfect “sound.” That pursuit produced some remarkable albums in the late 1960s and ’70s, like “Karma” (featuring his anthem, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” with Leon Thomas on yodeling vocals), “Thembi” and “Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun).” But he turned off more critics than he appealed to, especially his split-tone saxophone playing, which was both an expression of catharsis and a callback to West African techniques of “vocal chording.”

On “Pharoah,” Sanders embraced the less incendiary elements of his style. As he said candidly in an interview after the album’s release, he’d hoped that isolating his tender side might produce “something that would sell well.”

The session had come about when Bob Cummins, a self-taught audio engineer who had recently started a small label called India Navigation, approached Sanders, his musical hero, with an offer to record at the humble Nyack, N.Y., studio that he’d built with his wife, Nancy. He insisted that Sanders bring a lean setup, suggesting a spartan bass-and-sax recording, but when the saxophonist arrived, he had Bedria and five other musicians with him. (For Sanders, this was a small group.)

It all became a bit of a disaster — except the record itself. Somehow, Cummins’s spare setup proved just sufficient, and the three tracks on “Pharoah” stand out from everything Sanders had been playing in that period: They resist peaking, staying quieter and more direct.

“Harvest Time” centers on a finger-plucked guitar, with an underwater tremolo effect, alternating — in classic Sanders style — between just two chords. (In the recovered live recordings included with this release, Sanders plays Muñoz’s part on the saxophone; those chords are the song’s melody.) In come Steve Neil’s steady bass, Sanders’s searching lines and then Bedria’s gusts of harmonium, filling the air.

In some ways this was in the spirit of Trane, but it was also outside his shadow, casting toward ambient music. On another track, “Love Will Find a Way,” Sanders reaches for a jazz-rock sound more related to Santana or the Grateful Dead, letting Muñoz’s distorted guitar lines tear ahead.

Credit…David Redfern/Redferns, via Getty Images

Sanders would rerecord that song in 1977, in a distant-cousin version, for Arista, committing to a more commercial route with a backing of CTI Records-esque strings. The LPs that followed often felt like negotiations between his id and his audience, often to rewarding result, like on “Journey to the One” and “Beyond a Dream.”

In his 2020 tribute to Sanders, Hutchings mentioned that the elder’s music represented “the cyclical view which sees the prominence of individual players as transient but the group contribution as reaching for eternity.” That is, he was just a vessel — an awesome one. By that view, maybe it shouldn’t be hard to defend the decision to present a concert next week at the Hollywood Bowl, featuring Sanders and Floating Points’s “Promises,” with Hutchings filling in on the tenor saxophone parts. By another perspective, it’s a bit off-putting to see a younger musician dropped in to fill the shoes of such a purposeful figure.

There is something more appealing about the “Harvest Time Project,” a traveling performance scenario that will put Muñoz together with an intergenerational mix of musicians in an active upholding of Sanders’s pursuit. A workshop performance — potentially the best kind, for this group — will be held on Oct. 14 at National Sawdust in Brooklyn (featuring the bassist Joshua Abrams, the guitarist Jeff Parker, the drummer Chad Taylor, the saxophonist James Brandon Lewis), before it heads to Europe.

Bedria Sanders said music was a verb, not a noun, for Sanders, a constant lifeline. “Music was something to elevate you above all this other stuff that was going on, to a more spiritual realm,” she said in an interview, remembering their six years together. “To put you back on focus, to get back to yourself and what you really are here for. To get back to the natural state of the universe, which is peace.”

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