Jazz legend, Pharoah Sanders, has died at the age of 81.
Whether using his saxophone as a wormhole into a spiritual plane to connect with something deeper or traversing the realms of time and transcending cosmic barriers, Pharoah Sanders was resplendent in his music creation.
His record label, Luaka Bop, confirmed the news of his death on Twitter.
“We are devastated to share that Pharoah Sanders has passed away. He died peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace.”
Known for his affiliations with Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane – one of the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz and 20th-century music, Sanders found a music home with Indian and African music.
Born Farrel Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1940, Pharoah, who sometimes had his name confused with Pharaoh, started his music career after playing clarinet and drums in church before picking up the tenor saxophone in his high school band.
After high school, Sanders had to choose between music or an art scholarship. This conundrum had him leave Little Rock for Oakland, West Coast, where he started getting gigs. In 1962, he arrived in New York, where he collaborated with Sun Ra, who christened him Pharoah, and John Coltrane, who “was a giant man” to Sanders at the time. Before joining his band, Sanders performed with John Coltrane for the first time at the Half Note in New York, and the duo went up to perform together until John’s passing in 1967.
Describing his music style, Sanders believes he tries to talk about “a supreme being” and see himself and the universe around him through the hundreds of horns he collected.
“Naturally, you have elements of music skills to work with, but once you’ve got those down, I think you should go after feelings. If you try to be too intellectual about it, the music becomes too mechanical…let the spirit take over, wherever it goes….”
Notable among Sander’s works is his 1996 album “Message from Home”, which was influenced by African traditional music. This was followed by “Jewels of Thought” in 1969, where Sanders explored African spirituality. In the same year, the album Karma also incorporated influences from traditional African and south Asian music.
Sanders, diving deeper into Asian forms, further collaborated with Coltrane’s wife to create an Indian jazz form, typifying his interest and admiration for Indian creators Bismillah Khan and Ravi Shankar.
In 1971, Sanders released one of his most critically acclaimed works with “Thembi”. At the high point, the saxophonist made known his quest to discover other worlds through an explorative journey into sound.
His most recent body of work, Promises, a collaboration with Sam Sheperd, was released in 2021 but recorded in 2019.
In his tribute, Sam Shepherd wrote: “My beautiful friend passed away this morning. I am so lucky to have known this man, and we are all blessed to have his art stay with us forever. Thank you, Pharoah.”
Los Angeles-based music writer Jeff Weiss calls Sanders “the holiest seer of spiritual jazz” and “the last of the best”.
“Thank you, Dad…”. His son, Tomoki Sanders, wrote.
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