PHAROAH SANDERS

Live
Evidence ECD 22223-2

Often viewed as a sort of John Coltrane-Lite, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ career has always seemed to be focused on the approximately two years — 1964 to 1966 — he spent in the groups of the older tenor saxophonist.

More controversial than other Trane formations, the Black Nationalist and Spiritual concerns manifested by those combos mixed with the screaming split tones Sanders contributed to their output, seemed to mark him as a permanent outsider in an increasingly conservative jazz scene after that.

In truth, as this reissued live disc from 1981 — beefed up with another more than 21½ minute track — demonstrates, despite the comparisons, the younger tenorist was always his own man. Sanders was — and is — less sophisticated yet more worldly than Trane ever was. A product of Little Rock, Ark. and Oakland, Calif., on his own Sanders exhibits a popular touch that was almost anathema to the earnest older saxophonist. Before he joined Trane, Sanders had played many R&B gigs and with Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Afterwards, he was able to meld those influences into a Pan-African style, heavy on the percussion instruments that led to best-selling LPs. More recently he hasn’t been afraid of recording with local musicians from various ethnic cultures.

A mixture of these streams is evident on the five tracks here, recorded with a Coltranesque rhythm section of pianist John Hicks, bassist Walter Booker and drummer Idris Muhammad. The last two names should be a giveaway.

A powerful, mono-rhythmic basher, during his career the drummer Muhammad probably been on as many soul and R&B dates as jazz discs. Straightforward Booker held the bass chair in the bands of two of the music’s greatest communicators, saxophonist Cannonball Adderly and, after his death, cornetist Nat Adderley. A former Jazz Messenger, the pianist has worked with everyone from Dionne Warwick to another inside/outside tenor man David Murray.

Those who fear Sanders’ so-called avant-gardisms should hear how he caresses the flanks of Rodgers and Hart’s ballad “Easy to Remember”. However its performance in quartet form is a bit self-defeating, since Coltrane recorded the definitive version of the tune on his BALLADS album. “Blues For Santa Cruz” lives up to its title, though. A Southern back-alley creep heavy on elongated sax vamps, it may have reminded Hicks of his gigs with Little Milton, and Muhammad of his days with The Impressions and Larry Williams. On it the pianist lets loose with some energetic, emphasized, right-handed blues slurs that wouldn’t have gone unappreciated in Oakland.

But it’s the other tunes that really make the CD. “Doktor Pitt”, named for the owner of Theresa records that originally put out the LP, is previously unreleased for some reason. One of those steamroller themes that pushes everything else out of its way, the tune features Hicks in a modal mood, with a high intensity attack, slipping and sliding all over the keys. Proving that his jazz chops were still as strong as ever, the drummer goes from restrained gentleness to circus strongman-like power in his solo. Booker holds the beat together, while Sanders ranges from overblowing displays of flutter tonguing and glossolalia — as well as high-pitched screams from both his reeds and vocal chords — to simple, strained staccato melody statements. All in all, the tune has the undeviating strength of a performance of Trane’s classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.

“Pharomba” is more of the same. Beginning with an essay in beat variation from the drummer, he sounds the parts of his kit he neglected first time out mid-way through the track. Here the saxophonist uses more of a moderated Ben Webster style tone, leavened with a few honks as the leitmotif. As moving as it is intense, his unruffled tone owes as much to Gene Ammons’ and Illinois Jacquet’s jazzy R&B-conception as anything the New Thing ever created. Hicks brings a polished manner to his swinging two-handed piano exploration, and you can hear the bassist quite clearly walking his bass strings.

“You’ve Got To Have Freedom” extends this even further, though you should be warned that Sanders constructs much of his solo out of the prolonged, keening, reed-biting squeaks in altissimo — or maybe sopranissimo — mode with which he first made his reputation. Despite — or perhaps because of — this, the more the 14-minute tune bounces along like a well-oiled swing machine, especially when goosed by Hicks’s repeated right-handed, rubato jabs and makes up in excitement what it may lack of subtlety.

Although it was recorded more than 20 years ago, LIVE then and now was the epitome of the swinging, mainstream modern session, unquestionably palatable to everyone but the back-peddling neo-cons. Do yourself a favor, ignore those mountebanks and give it a listen.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. You’ve Got To Have Freedom 2. Easy To Remember 3. Blues For Santa Cruz 4. Pharomba 5. Doktor Pitt

Personnel: Pharoah Sanders (tenor saxophone); John Hicks (piano); Walter Booker (bass); Idris Muhammad (drums)