Pharoah Sanders, whose saxophone was a force of nature, dies at 81

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Pharoah Sanders, whose saxophone was a force of nature, dies at 81
The celebrated saxophonist and composer Pharoah Sanders, plays at Baby’s All Right in New York, May 6, 2015. Sanders, who first gained wide recognition for his work with John Coltrane and went on to release dozens of albums as a band leader, died in Los Angeles on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. He was 81. Sam Polcer/The New York Times

by Jon Pareles

NEW YORK, NY.- Pharoah Sanders, a saxophonist and composer celebrated for music that was at once spiritual and visceral, purposeful and ecstatic, died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 81.

His death was announced in a statement by Luaka Bop, the company for whom he had made his most recent album, “Promises.” The statement did not specify the cause.

The sound Sanders drew from his tenor saxophone was a force of nature: burly, throbbing and encompassing, steeped in deep blues and drawing on extended techniques to create shrieking harmonics and imposing multiphonics. He could sound fierce or anguished; he could also sound kindly and welcoming. (He also played soprano saxophone.)

He first gained wide recognition as a member of John Coltrane’s groups from 1965 to 1967. He then went on to a fertile, prolific career, with dozens of albums and decades of performances.

Sanders played free jazz, jazz standards, upbeat Caribbean-tinged tunes and African- and Indian-rooted incantations such as “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” which opened his 1969 album, “Karma,” a pinnacle of devotional free jazz. He recorded widely as both a leader and a collaborator, working with Alice Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Joey DeFrancesco and many others.

“Promises,” a collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sam Shepherd, an electronic musician known as Floating Points, was released in 2021.

“I’m always trying to make something that might sound bad sound beautiful in some way,” Sanders told The New Yorker in 2020. “I’m a person who just starts playing anything I want to play, and make it turn out to be maybe some beautiful music.”

Sanders was born Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Oct. 13, 1940. His mother was a cook in a school cafeteria; his father worked for the city. He first played music in church, starting on drums and moving on to clarinet and then saxophone. He played blues, jazz and R&B at clubs around Little Rock; during the era of segregation, he recalled in 2016, he sometimes had to perform behind a curtain.

In 1959 he moved to Oakland, California, where he performed at local clubs. His fellow saxophonist John Handy suggested he move to New York City, where the free-jazz movement was taking shape, and in 1962, he did.

At times in his early New York years he was homeless and lived by selling his blood. But he also found gigs in Greenwich Village, and he worked with some of the leading exponents of free jazz, including Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Sun Ra.

It was Sun Ra who persuaded him to change his first name to Pharoah, and for a short time Sanders was a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra.

Sanders made his first album as a leader, “Pharoah,” for ESP-Disk in 1964. John Coltrane invited him to sit in, and in 1965 Sanders became a member of Coltrane’s group, exploring elemental, tumultuous free jazz on albums like “Ascension,” “Om” and “Meditations.”

After Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders went on to record with his widow, pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, on albums including “Ptah, the El Daoud” and “Journey in Satchidananda,” both released in 1970.

Sanders had already begun recording as a leader on the Impulse! label, which had also been Coltrane’s home. The titles of his albums — “Tauhid” in 1967, “Karma” in 1969 — made clear his interest in Islamic and Buddhist thought.

His music was expansive and open-ended, concentrating on immersive group interaction rather than solos, and incorporating African percussion and flutes. In the liner notes to “Karma,” the poet, playwright and activist Amiri Baraka wrote, “Pharoah has become one long song.” The 32-minute “The Creator Has a Master Plan” moves between pastoral ease — with a rolling two-chord vamp and a reassuring message sung by Leon Thomas — and squalling, frenetic outbursts, but portions of it found FM radio airplay beyond jazz stations.

During the 1970s and ’80s, Sanders’ music moved from album-length excursions such as the kinetic 1971 “Black Unity” toward shorter compositions, reconnections with jazz standards and new renditions of Coltrane compositions. (He shared a Grammy Award for his work with pianist McCoy Tyner on the 1987 album “Blues for Coltrane.”) His recordings grew less turbulent and more contemplative. On the 1977 album “Love Will Find a Way,” he tried pop-jazz and R&B, sharing ballads with singer Phyllis Hyman. He returned to more mainstream jazz with his albums for Theresa Records in the 1980s.

But his explorations were not over. In live performances, he might still bear down on one song for an entire set and make his instrument blare and cry out. During the 1990s and early 2000s, he made albums with innovative producer Bill Laswell. He reunited with blistering electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock — who had been a Sanders sideman — on the 1991 album “Ask the Ages,” and he collaborated with Moroccan gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania on “The Trance of Seven Colors” in 1994.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Sanders had difficult relationships with record labels, and he spent nearly two decades without recording as a leader. Yet he continued to perform, and his occasional recorded appearances — including his wraithlike presence on “Promises” in 2021 — were widely applauded. In 2016, he was named a Jazz Master, the highest honor for a jazz musician in the United States, by the National Endowment for the Arts.

In a video made in recognition of his award, the saxophonist Kamasi Washington said, “It’s like taking fried chicken and gravy to space and having a picnic on the moon, listening to Pharoah.” Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin said, “It’s like he’s playing pure light at you. It’s way beyond the language. It’s way beyond the emotion.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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