A disciple dubbed by John Coltrane in the 1960s, the “pharaoh” of the tenor sax followed a musical and spiritual path marked first by flashes, then by a certain wisdom. Recognized reference of free, he died on September 24 at 81 years old.
He was one of the last free men in jazz. Not only because his natural language was “free”. But also because his entire life was determined by a spirituality that impressed his contemporaries, starting with John Coltrane. Farrell Sanders was not nicknamed “Pharoah” (pharaoh) for nothing. He was a divine prince, a son of the Sun lost in the materialistic dump of ultra-liberal America. His soft and still half-closed eyes closed forever: the last mystic of the saxophone left his carnal envelope on September 24, at the age of 81.
Pharoah Sanders gave her first cry on October 13, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas. His youth will be anything but ordinary, at least for a black musician born in the South of the United States: an initiation to music by the church, passages in a few groups of R’n’B and jazz , a professional life limited to “black” clubs. Also, as soon as possible, the tenor sax takes his ticket to New York. He lives, cooks here, paints walls there. By chance, Sun Ra hears it and perceives a possibility of integrating it into his galaxy. Here he is engaged. And immediately he screams. It is unleashed beyond all propriety, all measure. The power of Sanders is phenomenal, even more his conviction to be a child of God belonging fully to the planet by the body, to the stars by the spirit, and that no chain could retain in physical or spiritual slavery. He is a revolutionary like John the Baptist, the iron ascetic who ate grasshoppers and bawled all day long in the desert announcing the end of time. Except that what he blows into his burning tenor is the end of oppression: You’ve Got to Have Freedom. The cantor ofsupreme love left completely amazed. John Coltrane recruits Pharoah to record Ascent in June 1965. Soon, he made him his official disciple. Several monuments of the free will attest to their complementarity, meditations, Kulu Se Mama, Om, Phrase… The critics may denigrate him (a Coltrane, still passes, two, thank you very much), reproach him for his systematic tornadoes of howls and sobs that spin your spine, Sanders appears after 1967 as the testamentary apostle of Coltrane, carried away suddenly with liver cancer.
At a crossroads, Pharoah Sanders has the intelligence not to seek to pursue his mentor’s quest. It’s because he’s not looking, he’s already found. Coltrane yearned for mystical unity but remained prey to existential anxieties. They will never torture Sanders. Also he develops a spiritual jazz simpler, less tortuous, from which benefit Tauhid (1967), Karma (1969), Thembi (1971), Black Unity (1972), Village of the Pharoahs (1973) and Elevation (1974). Almost every time, it is a question of long improvisations around a restricted melodic motif, of a harmony limited to a few chords which will suddenly be torn apart, releasing a torrent of howls from which the cosmic harmony will rebound, the peace and love for all creatures, in union with the Creator. Jazz? Without a doubt. But Pharoah cares little, too conscious of being only the instrument of an infinitely higher will.
In the mid-1970s, even as his pacifist anthem The Creator Has a Master Plan, widely broadcast by American radio stations, allowed him to gain notoriety, Sanders felt the need to return to more conventional forms. He leaves Impulse! for small independent labels but is much less inspired than in the past. Africa and Oh Lord, let me do no wrong remind us that his energy remains unbroken. More albums will follow mainstream produced by Bill Laswell and a final collaboration with Floating Points (Promises, in 2021). While he appeared more and more rarely on stage – where he remained terribly impressive – and that he probably lived on little, Sanders, eternal African hat on his head and white goatee on his chin, had been crowned living legend by the new generation of jazz. According to the few interviews he granted, this status left him indifferent. The man had freed himself from his ego for so long that he could barely form sentences in his name. All his mind was music, all his music was mind. If our time was wise, it would build a pyramid in honor of Pharoah Sanders.