In the world of jazz, the names of musicians have never been anecdotal. There was a time when its most accomplished representatives gladly decked themselves out with an old regime title, like a snub to the segregation system that kept them at the bottom of the ladder: the Count (Count) Basie, the Duke (Duke) Ellington, King (King) Oliver. Then came the reign of metaphors with the bird (Bird) Parker, the vertiginous (Dizzy) Gillespie. The emergence of Free Jazz, an aesthetic affirmation of black American pride, will be an opportunity for a new generation to change nicknames. And if many have taken their names from Muslim onomastics, others, inspired by the work of the controversial Africanist ethnologist Cheikh Anta Diop, will borrow them from a syncretic mythology drawn, in particular, from ancient Egypt. It is thus Sun Ra, a major actor in the jazz epic and freak reincarnation of the Egyptian sun god, who attributes to the young Farell Sanders the emeritus title of Pharaoh.
Born in 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sanders quickly moved to San Francisco where he made his ranges as a saxophonist in rhythm and blues and rock and roll groups. But it was New York and its avant-gardes that attracted and excited him. In 1965, at 25 and already crowned pharaoh, Sanders caught the eye and ears of John Coltrane. The eminent saxophonist has just recorded “A Love Supreme”, a long plea that casts off the moorings of bop harmonies for a one-way trip: two years later, Coltrane will die a demi-god, sick and exhausted by his search for absolute. Pharaoh Sanders will have been actor and witness of this Promethean quest for an aesthetic continually pushed to its formal and spiritual entrenchments. Students of the Coltrane stable, with which he will record five albums, including the essential “Ascension”, and some legendary concerts, he will be, with Archie Shepp, one of the most famous. But when Shepp inscribes his free jazz in the heritage of the blues, when Albert Ayler, another Free demiurge, embraces an uncompromising radicalism, Sanders strives to define a hymnic Free, based on recognizable and structuring themes.
Hence the paradox of the Sanders case raised by Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli in their book Free Jazz, Black Power : to the deconstruction of the themes, signifying the radicality of the political aims of the “Free” scene, Sanders will oppose their development. His improvisations, back and forth between the possibilities offered by the alternately tenor or soprano saxophone, referred to the chant, building, probably without his knowledge, bridges with the world of rock music without ever really joining it. This mystical and spiritualist lyricism will have contributed to widening the circle of lovers of the “Free” genre, especially among a white audience. In 1969, in the middle of the “summer of love”, was released on the Impulse label! who had accompanied Coltrane in his last years, the album “Karma”. With its long deist leitmotif, “The creator has a master plan”, the album, which remains one of the most famous and accessible of the “free” genre, signals the spiritualist commitment of the saxophonist . Sanders will never depart from this syncretic belief in a single god who could very well have been that of the Christians, Jews, Muslims or Hindus gathered together. The albums “Thembi”, “Black Unity”, “Summun, bukmun, umyun”, “Jewels of thought”, built on long improvisations inspired by African and Indian music where the hoarseness of the saxophone touches the shrillness, forge an immediately identifiable style. . Thereafter, Sanders will continue to cultivate his “free” garden, building a plethoric discography, as a leader or accompanist, of which we will retain “Journey to the One” and “Rejoice” recorded in the early 80s or “Africa” in 1990. Despite a few trips to more conventional music, which will go as far as the binary rhythms of disco, Sanders will never let go of the cries and tears that speak of the secular anger of his people and formulate a spiritual quest. Regularly continuing to ignite stages around the world (we have seen this in recent years, in France, both at New Morning and at the Banlieue Bleues and Sons d’hiver festivals), the pharaoh periodically recorded inspired records. His latest opus, ‘Promises’, crafted in 2021 with electronic music composer Floating Points and the venerable London Symphonic Orchestra, has garnered unanimous critical acclaim and audience success which, albeit modest by music industry figures , has become rare in the jazz world.