Pharoah Sanders, Jazz Café, London

Pharoah's biblical refrain
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The Independent Culture

The Old Testament beard and wild locks have gone, replaced with an Eighties flat-top, but in a luminous green velvet jacket and omnipresent sunglasses Pharoah Sanders remains as visually imposing as his name suggests, as well as looking much younger than his 61 years.

You never quite know what you're going to get with Sanders. Although his period with Sun Ra and his Arkestra is long behind him, there's still something anarchic and unexpected about his tenor saxophone playing. He might be exposing the melody of a standard in quite a conventional way, but then he'll suddenly switch to ululating harmonics and barrel-scraping honks, twisting the sweetness out of the tune and discarding it as a burnt-out wreck.

Last week, Sanders revisited his association with John Coltrane, in whose band Sanders played in the last years of Trane's life, when the music was getting wilder and wilder. The form was always there; it just became increasingly difficult to see it. Sanders went back a little further for his set. Seamlessly blending the band's tuning up into an introduction, he opened with an incantation in the style of "A Love Supreme". Based on two chords, the rhythm section held one for a while, swirling around the space the almost unmetered pause allowed, and then shifted to the other, like a giant stepping in slow motion through the clouds. After this opener, a roar of recognition greeted the familiar "My Favourite Things". This was no saccharine outing but a near reprise of Coltrane's epic version, the chords opened and hardened, the melody ripping through the brown paper packages tied up in string and emerging in the major-key middle section as a primal, roaring beast.

Miles Davis once asked Coltrane why his solos took so long. "I just couldn't stop playing," replied Coltrane. "Try taking the sax out of your mouth," was Davis's tart rejoinder. This presupposes that a solo should be a neat little statement. Sometimes, as Coltrane also used to say, "it just takes that long". Sanders took 45 minutes to work through "My Favourite Things", but it seemed no more than 10. He and his quartet know exactly how to use the freedom provided by such a simple approach. The saxophonist soloed solely on the middle section's two chords for maybe 30 minutes. Far from being repetitive and irritating, the result was a hypnotic momentum that enveloped the listener with a heavy sea of sound; it washed over the tune's structure and reached some timeless, elemental point inside. Many musicians attempt their own tributes to Coltrane. Few come anywhere near the awesome, biblical authority that Sanders possesses.