Plane Talk

The spiritual trips of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders

Although he has never stepped foot on Indian soil, Pharoah Sanders says that he's always felt the country in his blood. "I have these dreams of me playing in some kind of musical event in India where people play spiritual music," the 56-year-old saxophonist earnestly explains, adding that he feels a deep connection to any place where spiritual concerns are given pre-eminence over secular pursuits. Though the setting will be no closer to India than the Masonic Auditorium, at least part of Sanders' dreams will come true at the San Francisco Jazz Festival Annual Spring Benefit in a collaboration with the Percussion Maestros of North and South India and father-and-son tabla masters Ustad Allarakha and Zakir Hussain.

Sanders is no stranger to cross-cultural pollination. In 1994, he traveled to Morocco, where under the direction of Bill Laswell he teamed up with Gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania for The Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom). This fiery album does not come across as a typical jazz/world music hybrid per se, but a one-world union of masters on like-minded spiritual quests. While the driving elements -- Sanders' volcanic roar and the Gnawa ensemble's percussion-heavy indigenous grooves -- fail to cohere on the surface, they come together on another plane. All the musicians involved, Sanders stresses in typically laconic fashion, were concerned with "communicating positivity and trying to convey the Creator through the music."

These themes have prevailed throughout a tumultuous career which spans more than three decades of spotty popular and critical acclaim. In the mid-'60s, Sanders got his big break among the New York avant-gardists in an explosive alliance with John Coltrane. After Trane's passing, Sanders forged ahead, honing a trademark sound on a string of Impulse! records like Karma and Thembi, which successfully plumbed the relationships between West African rhythms and East Asian modalities. By the late '70s, the Trane-inspired explorative fire had seemingly dimmed as Sanders ventured into synths, standards, and balladic badlands while taking up long-term residence in the Bay Area. In 1992, he returned to NYC with renewed vigor following a crucial pairing with Laswell and Sonny Sharrock on the late guitarist's rip-roaring Ask the Ages.

The saxophonist's latest recording and debut for Verve, Message From Home, finds him at the bidding of producer Laswell once again. Although all of the compositions are credited to Sanders, Laswell's market-savvy fingerprints are all over them. Axiom posse member Bernie Worrell augments Sanders' longtime pianist, William Henderson, and programmer/keyboardist Jeff Bova; two bassists are on board for the groovy dub effect, one being the notable Charnett Moffett; and lots of percussion, indigenous instrumentation, and chant vox lend authenticity to the trendily Afrique-centric theme. Although innovative drummer Hamid Drake is unfortunately consigned to a straightforward, albeit funky, backbeat, overall the mix is chic and modern, texturally deep and danceable if not capital-J jazz.

With chops fully intact, Sanders rises above his surrealist accompaniment on wings of peaceful melodicism. Even his split-tone, high-register wails are free of abrasive, confrontational tonality, dancing among the Laswell-layered grooves with uncommon joy. Sanders has never been a prisoner of genre. "I'm not into one kinda thing," he says, referring to his upcoming Jazz Fest gig. "I'm not into trying to be a jazz musician or any kind of thing like that. ... I'll just play my little old thing and do what I have to do and try to blend spiritually, try to communicate with no egos ... just play from the heart. That's all it is." As always, the simplest designs are the most transcendent.

Pharoah Sanders plays the San Francisco Jazz Festival Annual Spring Benefit Sun, May 19, at the Masonic Auditorium in S.F.; call 864-5449.

 
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