Pharaoh Sanders, Jazz Café, London

Martin Longley
Friday 05 December 2003 01:00
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Descending the stairs of The Jazz Café, the blue-velvet-shirted tenor saxophonist Sanders has the aura of a spiritual leader. Which is exactly what he is, in terms of late-Sixties free jazz pioneering. It was Sanders who joined John Coltrane in the last few years of his life, helping him chart abstract, howling zones that challenged the loyalty of existing fans. Then, Sanders proceeded to create a series of classic albums for the Impulse label, including Karma, Thembi and Black Unity.

In the Eighties, Pharoah withdrew into a standard setting, employing conventional jazz instrumentation. Come the Nineties, he was awash in the production swirl of Bill Laswell, once more collaborating with Indian and African players. Most recently, he maintained a cult status on a different dancefloor by guesting with 23 Skidoo.

Pharoah's eyes still burn with a calmly intense, knowing light. His glowing white hair is a topiarist's dream trim: flat-boxed on top, ridged down the sides, then whisker-bushed around under his chops. This is all part of his distinctive identity, his cult credentials.

The quartet opens with an invocation, a sustained rolling development, headed up by the leader's own lengthy solo. This is where Sanders confirms his strength and stamina, blowing with rugged control, his iron tone possessed by a controlled hysteria. When this heralding work is done, he returns to his perch on the stairs, allowing pianist William Henderson to embark on a seemingly endless, though continually engaging, solo. Sanders is generous when distributing solo space, with bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Joe Farnsworth also given space to express themselves. This is a democratic band, particularly when united as a group mind to play the opening and closing themes of each number.

The gathered faithful are mostly standing, illustrating that Pharoah's music is for dancing, even if that might only mean a gently swaying motion. They are also completely stilled, giving complete respect with their silence. Coltrane's "Giant Steps" bursts out in a phenomenal rush, its tempo pushed to the limit, fully flooded as the quartet transmits soloing ideas at the speed of thought. Pharoah's current approach is to combine the Sixties free cries and Eighties smooth standards, sometimes giving out great barking exclamations even whilst in the middle of a touching ballad.

His honk is like no other: a twisted harmonic tornado, mixing the avant-garde with roughshod R&B keening. He demonstrates the most extreme version of the fingering-without-blowing technique, setting up a repetitive Afro-marimba pulse. At one point, he is blowing but virtually not touching his horn, just one digit gently flapping. Pharoah's reed goes far back, buzzing, to something snipped from the banks of the Nile. His sheer lung-power lends itself to an unhinged sound, and these fearsome cries always sound well within his breath capabilities.

When the two-hour set is over, no amount of yelling and then cooing out of "Pharoah, Pharoah" will bring him back. Yes, this was a fully satisfying show, but such a persistent, heartfelt call for more should really have been answered...

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