Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pharoah Sanders in Little Rock - A Genius at Work


(Originally posted: Nov. 14, 2004)

After the steady rain that fell during the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena earlier this month, the appearance in Little Rock a couple of weekends ago of Pharoah Sanders, the jazz tenor great, was like a hot blast from a fired-up furnace.

The fiery Sanders put on an amazing 90-minute program at the Statehouse Convention Center the day after he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. The 100 or so lucky people in attendance heard the best jazz in Little Rock in years, at least since Joe Lovano and the late Joe Henderson, two other tenor players, performed at Wildwood along with a dozen other jazz greats eight years ago or so.

Sanders, a Little Rock native who lives in California, let his quartet do a warmup before he walked onstage, and he was all business, wearing dark glasses, blue shirt and dark pants. Without uttering a word, he let loose a wail that told you we were in the presence of a first-rate musician who plays from the soul, or he doesn't play at all.

He performed his own compositions, including his stunning signature tune, "The Creator Has a Master Plan," which Sanders first recorded in 1969 on his Impulse LP, "Karma." (It's available as a small gatefold CD. The 60s Impulse LPs and CDs are worth collecting for their distinctive packaging alone.)

"The Creator Has a Master Plan," which may be Sanders' masterpiece, is a long hymn that lasts almost 33 minutes on the record. He played it for almost as long at his concert, which featured his long-time accompanist William Henderson on piano.

Sanders plays mostly his own compositions, but occasionally he will do a standard like "My Favorite Things," which John Coltrane recorded more than 40 years ago and turned into more than pop music. Sanders, like Coltrane, deconstructed it, turned it inside and out and shook it up and created great art in the process.

Sanders played and recorded with Coltrane for a couple of years in the 1960s, including a live recording at New York's Village Vanguard nightclub and a studio recording called "Ascension," which "The Penguin Guide to Jazz CDs" lists as one of the greatest jazz records of all time. Sanders was into fierce, free-form jazz with Coltrane, who in his later years was abandoning more traditional playing, much to the disappointment of many critics. Coltrane died in 1967, but Sanders has kept Coltrane's spirit alive while mellowing at the same time.

He can let loose when he wants to, but Sanders today plays beautiful lyrical jazz that is more reminiscent of an earlier Coltrane. Check out Sanders' "Save Our Children" (Verve), which came out in 1998.

He may have played it at his concert, but because he didn't give their titles, I can't be certain. But the music on the CD is as profound and moving as anything in modern jazz. Listen to "Midnight in Berkeley Square," and it will make the blues go away if your candidate doesn't win next week: This is music from the heart, the work of a jazz master who has complete control of his instrument.

He was certainly in control during his Little Rock performance: Powerful and lyrical at the same time, subtle and piercing.

They called Sanders "Little Rock" when he moved to New York. He's the Arkansas' greatest jazz musician, but he's more than that: Sanders belongs in the world jazz pantheon, not just the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame.

Those who missed Sanders at the Statehouse Convention Center missed the best concert of the year, perhaps the concert of the decade. Let's hope he comes back soon and he'll perform before a bigger audience.

In the meantime, check out Sanders on Coltrane's "Live at the Village Vanguard Again" and his own "Save Our Children" and "Karma." You'll hear genius at work.


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