Whenever I experience the music of Pharoah Sanders - and I’ve been going to see him at The Iridium for over 15 years at least - I’m always reminded that many of the preconceptions that we have regarding the evolution of jazz are completely wrong. I have it in my head that, in the modern era at least, that every new school of jazz was more abstract and less audience-friendly that that which preceded it.
For instance, bebop was more abstract than swing, and free jazz (a catch all phrase for all the developments of the 1960s) was harder to listen to than bebop. But the music of Pharoah Sanders convinces me that this is just plain wrong.
Here’s a major musician of the 1960s, who was a key player in all of the developments of that era - free jazz, modal jazz, multi-phonics, “sheets of sound,” and other permutations of the so-called avant-garde - who was trying to make the music more accessible, not less, and turn audiences on rather than off.
Saturday’s set at The Iridium began with a long and impressive intro, and a beautiful, extended piano solo from Benito Gonzalez that sounded less than a piece of composed music than a literal representation of some kind of motion from the natural world, like a river flowing. Bassist Nathaniel Reeves and drummer Jonathan Blake were less like a rhythm section than additional visual color, rather like a couple of birds and animals or even fish who were part of the river’s natural life. And then, when Mr. Sanders made his dramatic entrance, about five minutes into the set, his big and imposing tenor saxophone sound could have been a boat, a magnificent sailing ship with all flags flying, charging up the river and into our line of vision.
Of course there are modern jazz musicians who seem to forget that the audience is even there, but Mr. Sanders is always a crowd-pleaser, never forgetting to engage the audience, even if it’s something as simple as leading them in a hand-clapping sequence or engaging them in a verbal call-and-response, like a postmodern Cab Calloway.
Mr. Sanders played more or less continually, without stopping for a clear break between numbers. At one point he floated into a lovely extended reading of “Naima,” the most well-known love song by his former bandleader and collaborator John Coltrane. “Naima” actually served to underscore the key distinction between Mr. Sanders and the late Coltrane; the Jazz Messiah, as he is sometimes known, was primarily a spiritually-oriented artist, even when he was playing a ballad.
Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, is primarily a romantic, and he sounds like he is crooning a love song even when he is playing a spiritual anthem. This becomes especially clear as he builds to his signature number, “The Creator has a Master Plan,” which he plays, sings, chants, and yodels.
First heard on his 1969 album Kharma (it’s practically the whole album) this was clearly Mr. Sander’s answer to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” But whereas Coltrane’s work is, essentially a meditation - ie, a private communication between man and the Supreme Being - Mr. Sanders’s work is more of an anthem, in which the artist is not necessarily communicating with God but communicating to the congregation about God. After all these years of enjoying the music of Pharoah Sanders, I’m beginning to think he’s more interested in entertaining us than saving our souls. But maybe just barely.