"Pharoah is a man of large spiritual reservoir," John Coltrane once said. "He's trying to allow his spiritual self to be his guide ... dealing, among other things, in energy, in integrity, in essences." Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who joined the legendary bandleader in his pioneering group in 1964, has always looked to a higher power: He aims to put the collective effort -- the music -- ahead of his own talent, reflecting a lifelong interest in "trying to convey the creator" in his every expression.
Sanders still performs with a selfless spiritual presence that shines regardless of the style of music he's playing -- whether traditional jazz, swinging blues, or some unnameable mix -- giving listeners the strange yet enchanting impression that he's immersed in the musicmaking act while somehow levitating above it. On With a Heartbeat, his latest ambient venture under the production auspices of dub master Bill Laswell, he lays way back, nearly melting into the multicultural mix of tabla, electric sitar, flute, cornet, bass, keys, and synthesized heartbeats. In an interview with yours truly a few years ago, the musician explained his technique: "I'll just play my little old thing and do what I have to do and try to blend spiritually, try to communicate without no egos, just play."
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Sanders' focus on the inner creative process -- its heart and soul -- enables him to channel his rich, round sound into virtually any context. Even on his more explicit jazz outings, like the recently reissued 1981 quartet recording Live, he explores a range of material, from screaming originals to blues to standards, with the goal of tapping into what lies beneath the surface; the overt melody, rhythm, and harmonic sequence of a particular tune are clearly secondary. "The music speaks through me," Sanders believes, "and I just try to bring it out."