R.I.P. Pharaoh Sanders (1940-2022)

Yesterday I heard the sad news that yet another legendary jazz musician – the tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders – has passed away at the age of 81. As well as having one of the iconic beards of jazz, he had a unique and instantly recognizable style on tenor sax, heavily influenced by African and Asian music, sometimes involving raucous flurries of notes, sometimes overblowing, biting the reed or growling into the horn to achieve unusual effects, and sometimes playing with a contemplative lyricism evoking a deep sense of spirituality.

Pharaoh Sanders began his recording career in the 1960s with John Coltrane on the great albums Ascension and Meditation. His playing then was avant-garde free jazz somewhat reminiscent of Albert Ayler but with a strong influence of Coltrane whom he influenced in return. Later on he embraced wider influences, including electronic instruments, as exemplified by the album Thembi. Later he moved away from free jazz improvisation to more traditional approaches. His recorded output decreased from the end of the 1980s but he carried on touring extensively and still creating wonderful music.

I’ve had the great privilege to hear Pharaoh Sanders play live on a number of occasions and he was terrific every time. He played at the National Concert Hall in Dublin just a few years ago but I was unable to make it to the concert.

I’ve been listening to Pharaoh Sanders tracks all morning to remind myself what a great musician he was. Out of all the superb tracks I could have picked going back to the mid-60s I picked this one, from the 1987 album Africa which I think exemplifies his later style very well. The track is You’ve got to have freedom:

P.S. You might be interested to know that the drummer on this track, Idris Muhammed, also played the drums on Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill way back in 1956…

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