From his emergence on the New York scene during the early 1960s, until his passing last year, the saxophonist and composer, Pharoah Sanders, remained one of the driving forces in jazz. Known for his great breaking style of playing that helped lay the groundwork for spiritual jazz, as well as a particular movement of free jazz - infusing lyrism and melody with overblown, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques - during the same period that he was working with John Coltrane, and then Alice Coltrane, Sanders embarked upon his own career as a band leader, producing a suite of albums across the 1960s and '70s for ESP, Impulse!, Strata-East, and others that remain some of the most celebrated, enduring, and sought-after in the canon of jazz. They are a marvel beyond words and stand entirely on their own. From their first sounding, there is no mistaking them for anything but Pharoah’s music. Among these, arguably the greatest and rarest holy grail is 1977's “Pharoah”, issued by tiny New York, loft jazz era imprint India Navigation, that - in addition to loads of seminal free jazz releases - would later deliver iconic experimental gestures like Arnold Dreyblatt's “Nodal Excitation”, Yoshi Wada’s “Lament for the Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Crocodile”, and Phill Niblock’s “Nothin To Look at Just a Record”. Out of print for 45 years, David Byrne’s imprint, Luaka Bop, returns with the first-authorized vinyl reissue of “Pharoah”, delivered in a stunning deluxe edition, issued as an embossed 2LP box set. Carrying Sander’s full blessing, In addition to the fully remastered version of “Pharoah”, this collection holds a second LP comprising two previously unreleased live performances of his masterpiece, “Harvest Time”, as well as a 24-page booklet with rarely seen photographs and ephemera, interviews with many of the participants and a conversation with Pharoah himself. A beautiful object that takes the breath away, and historically important beyond words, there’s no doubt that this one is among the most hotly anticipated reissues of the year.
Born Ferrell Lee Sanders in 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas, Pharoah Sanders showed remarkable musical promise from the earliest age, accompanying church hymns on clarinet as a child before beginning to pursue the saxophone during high-school. Following a brief stint in San Francisco he relocated to New York in 1962. Falling on hard times and often homeless, during this early moment in his career he was taken in by Sun Ra - with whom he would play on and off over the years - who housed, clothed, and possible bestowed the name “Pharoah”.
It didn’t take long for Sander’s towering capacities to catch the eye of many of New York’s most notable talents. By 1963 he was playing with Billy Higgins and Don Cherry, and earned the nod from Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, the later of whom would invite him to join his band in 1965, helping to define the giant’s sound, beginning with “Ascension”, during the last years of his life.
Fascinatingly, despite working and recording with John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and Alice Coltrane - contributing to some of the most noteworthy avant-garde albums of that period - Sanders was relatively quick to step out as a band leader, intertwining remarkable solo releases with his work as a side-man. As early as 1965, he released his self-titled debut on ESP, before singing up with Impulse! and releasing the iconic LPs “Tauhid” and “Karma” before the end of the decade.
By the dawn of the 1970s, Sanders had truly stepped out on his own. While he continued to work with Alice Coltrane on iconic LPs like “Journey in Satchidananda” and “Ptah, The El Daoud” and occasionally play with Sun Ra, Dave Burrell, Leon Thomas, Idris Muhammad, and a handful of other, the vast majority of recordings that bear his name are driven by his own compositions and work as a leader, notably the nine full-lengths that he produced for Impulse! during the '70s, in addition to “Izipho Zam (My Gifts)” for Strata-East and 1977's “Pharoah” for India Navigation.
The Story of “Pharoah” is slightly mysterious. Legend has it that the album was born out of a misunderstanding between the saxophonist and India Navigation’s founder and producer Bob Cummins; a lawyer who helped jazz musicians with legal matters, who founded the label in solidarity with them. It was recorded when Sanders was at a crossroads in his career. It was first solo outing since “Love in Us All”, his last LP for Impulse, and encountered him entering the studio backed by the unlikely ensemble of the guitarist and spiritual guru, Tisziji Muñoz, Steve Neil on bass (later noted for his work with Frank Lowe), Greg Bandy and Lawrence Killian on drums and percussion, Clifton "Jiggs" Chase on organ, and his wife at the time, Bedria Sanders - a classically trained pianist - on harmonium, despite never having seen one prior.
The result, comprising three compositions - the side-long “Harvest Time” and “Love Will Find a Way” and “Memories of Edith Johnson”, is a notable departure from where Sanders had traveled during the late 1960s and early '70s. Ranging from the ambient and serene, to the funky and modal, despite being questioned and misunderstood in its moment - taking years to be understood and celebrated by new generations of fans - it represents the groundwork for his explorations over the coming years, charting new possibilities within the realm of spiritual jazz.
From “Harvest Time"'s breezy calm, offering Sander’s gorgeous sax lines with bubbling tonal textures and gentle bass lines, to the joyous, chugging expressions of “Love Will Find a Way” - soulfully sung by Sanders - to the abstract forms - bridging the vast distances between ambient music and gospel - of “Memories of Edith Johnson”, “Pharoah” is a truly remarkable statement in Sander’s unparalleled body of recordings from the 1970s. It’s little wonder why it took his long-time fans time to catch up and on, and why it’s been as persistently chased by collectors as it has. Making Luaka Bop’s release the definitive edition is an entirely new full-length LP comprising two astounding and previously unavailable live recording of “Harvest Time” from August of 1977, one from Willisau, Switzerland, and one from Middelheim in Belgium.
Truly monumental and illuminating on creative and historical terms, Luaka Bop’s first ever authorized vinyl reissue of Pharoah Sanders’s “Pharoah” is a truly stunning thing to behold. Beyond the amazing music, it’s a beautiful object, with its two fully remastered LPs housed in an embossed box, reproducing the album’s original cover, and accompanied by a 24-page booklet with rarely seen photographs and ephemera, and interviews with many of the participants and a conversation with Pharoah himself. Insanely essential for any fan of Sanders - new or old - and free and spiritual jazz.