Caught the Pharoah Sanders show at the August Wilson Center last week (Nov. 13), and how really great it was. I was surprised firstly by how bop-focused it was. While my sense of Sanders is overwhelmingly tied to his late 60s and early 70s free-jazz work on Impulse! (and also from his intense free stuff with Coltrane in the mid-60s), his bop sensibility on the night was impeccable. I know this is not news to anyone who has followed his post-Impulse! career. That’s not my favorite period of his career, but this performance maybe made me rethink Sanders a little bit. Pharoah’s band, consisting of his touring pianist William Henderson along with the Pittsburgh rhythm section of Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Roger Humphries (drums) and George Jones (congas), held it down solid, and I suspect their own bop sensibilities at least fed into (if not drove) the vibe. I say this partly because, in the advance article in the City Paper, Pharoah suggested that he would go with the flow of his band: “We’ll just get together and start playing....I might just call a key: F-sharp minor, and that’s it. Everybody just blows. It’ll always be right.” So I initially expected the set to be freer, more spontaneous. Instead it was very directed and very much in the bop mode, and it only makes sense that Sanders would play to the band’s strengths.
I was surprised secondly also by how Coltrane-centric this set was (again, I probably shouldn’t have been, since Sanders has recorded late-period tributes to Coltrane). The band opened with a marathon version of “My Favorite Things” (at one point, I thought, incorporating the theme of Coltrane’s “Afro Blue,” which resembles it in a way) and finally closed, as an encore, with “Giant Steps.” Henderson’s piano-playing was often reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, utilizing his signature block chords throughout most of the evening. That said, there were also some quite original progressions on his part, Monk-like in their mathematicality, but in what I guess I should call even a Henderson-like mode. Broadly speaking, though, this was very Coltrane Quartet of the early 60s — bop structures but with free, exploratory solos.
Pharoah himself was not quite as guttural or shrieking as in his earlier days. But the tone of his tenor is so uniquely his own, and that in itself was what was revelatory about the show, to hear it live, in front of you, rather than the ultra-intense bursts of energy contained on albums such as Tauhid, Jewels of Thought, Izipho Zam, Black Unity, or Village of the Pharoahs. Those bursts were still there in this set, however, from time to time. Pharoah would occasionally toss them out, or alternatively work up to a certain level, where, it seemed to me because he is so immensely talented and skilled, he can just let go and let the spirit move him (so to speak) to heights of beauty. Equally beautiful were those rare moments of squawk or overblown notes. Pharoah has always been so good at playing overblown notes that he can even play them melodically. At a couple of points in the set, also, he stopped blowing into his horn but continued to work the keys, allowing the air that was inside to be moved around by them, finally producing a quiet but unmistakable feedback-like sound. It was an inspired stroke, almost as if he was saying that he himself was but a vehicle for something else, the music, which is in the breath of life, existing on another level, actually outside of the person, occasionally allowing itself to be directed, though, and brought out into our world.
At age 70, Pharoah seemed to tire at times and would wander off-stage to take a break while the band did their thing(s). Well, who can fault him? But it was always a great moment of anticipation fulfilled when he’d walk back out, tenor at the ready, to renewed applause from the audience, and begin playing again. While the backing band was great, it was Pharoah we had all come to see. In the second half of the set, he once or twice stopped playing to dance around and dig his musicians, and the crowd would urge him on, some yelling, “Go Pharoah, go Pharoah!” And then he’d move back to his spot and blow some more. This was what it was like to hear and to see the greatest living tenor player. Perhaps Archie Shepp is a close second, but that accolade has to go to Pharoah Sanders now, and this show was proof.