Tenor Sax Player Pharoah Sanders Lives Large at SF Jazz Fest

"Trane was the father, Pharoah was the son, I was the Holy Ghost," tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler said in the mid-'60s. He was speaking of the free-jazz sax hierarchy headed by John Coltrane and followed by himself and Arkansas-born Pharoah Sanders. Soon after that statement, though, Coltrane's flame was extinguished by liver cancer while Ayler's was snuffed out on the banks of the East River under mysterious circumstances. Cults and box sets continue to be erected around those deceased masters, yet the man in the middle, Pharoah Sanders, remains underappreciated and underrepresented in the canon, even though he's still alive and breathing fire on stages worldwide.

After spending his early years gigging around Little Rock and Oakland, Sanders' move to the Big Apple in 1961 — and a set at the Village Gate in '63 — attracted Coltrane's attention. Always seeking new talent and voices, the jazz giant brought the young Sanders into the fold in 1965, right around the time that Coltrane's mighty Quartet began to shed jazz strictures such as "swing," chord progressions, and harmony, seeking instead raw power, stamina, and unadulterated sound. Sanders played second horn in the band, often taking center stage as Coltrane's strength began to falter, until the leader's passing in '67. Sanders then accompanied Coltrane's widow Alice on her groundbreaking jazz albums.

Legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders kicks off the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
Legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders kicks off the San Francisco Jazz Festival.


Pharoah Sanders performs as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival on Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $25-45; visit www.sfjazz.org for more info.
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By the late '60s, Sanders had struck out on his own, releasing immaculate, ecstatic records such as Tauhid and Karma, judiciously deploying his napalm tone so as to emphasize the African, Arabic, gospel, and Latin music textures ascendant in his band (which featured heavyweights like Sonny Sharrock, Lonnie Liston Smith, Idris Muhammad, and the vocals of Leon Thomas). He's been on an open-eared embrace of the world's music ever since, be it with the recently departed Mrs. Coltrane, Bill Laswell, or various African musicians. A living legend, Pharoah Sanders continues to infuse a spiritual calm with the fire of the gods.

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