Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Three Night Masterplan


It is a terrible admission but until last night I had never heard Pharaoh Sanders play live. I have liked his playing for years but somehow he has always existed on the periphery of my musical radar, my record collection is littered with his tracks both as band leader, member or guest artist but I have never really got into his music in a coherent manner. All this is surprising as I have a real sense of the music of his peers, John Coltrane, of course, Yusef Lateef, later recordings by Charles Lloyd, the Blue Note recordings of Wayne Shorter and Jackie McLean and latterly Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriot.
It is no doubt that any saxophonist will always be measured and referenced by the playing of John Coltrane, the heritage of Coltrane’s music still flows through every jazz musician and in particular saxophonist.

Pharaoh Sanders started one of three consecutive nights at the Jazz Café last night and it was a treat. An appreciative audience were captivated by Sanders playing, this was augmented by some high level playing by the three other band members on bass, drums and piano.
Sanders ambled on to the stage some way into the intro for his first number and began his set by testing out a few passages on the sax. It was an inauspicious start and did not bode well as his looks to the sound booth conveyed a real problem with the quality of the sound, the majority of the audience took these glances and grimaces as a motivation for them to give some encouragement to the band. However, due to the warm reaction of the crowd and some tinkering by the sound booth Sanders playing became more fluent and expressive as he weaved his way through an extended version of ‘My Favourite Things’. After 20 plus minutes of music, during which Sanders walked to the far edge of the stage to give the band members freedom and the spotlight to construct their solos and some great collective playing, he announced the culmination of the finality of this first track. This was achieved with is much talked about way of creating sound from his saxophone by releasing a note and removing his lips from the instrument as it plays on, it resonated with the note and continued playing by percussive tapping of the saxophones keys. A little showy perhaps but all in all it brought the audience to even greater appreciation.
It was obvious that this first passage of music had one great intention, Sanders was announcing that he was the true carrier of Coltrane’s musical legacy. As witness to this for the first time in my life I would not argue.
The second piece was another recognisable track from the Coltrane back catalogue, the altogether softer and more conventional ‘Say It (Over and Over Again)’. As before Sanders and his band showcased their musical versatility by taking a piece of music which lends itself to some straight ahead playing and expanding the lyrical themes of the song into an extended version. The varying passages moved between soft, lyrical playing and hard, aggressive bop. All the problems of the first few minutes of the gig were forgotten as Sanders once again gave centre stage to his band during their solos, as the music developed into a real swinging nature he danced with his saxophone at the side of the stage, eyes closed and his face pressed lovingly into the instrument. This was another epic piece of music and all that was left to take us to an hours worth of music was a version of his own ‘The Creator Has a Masterplan’ with small elements of ‘I’ve Known Rivers’ thrown in the mix. The band duly acknowledged he left the stage to great applause and appreciation by the audience. Everybody hoped for an encore but with such hard playing and another two nights of his residency left this was not forthcoming.
If ever an encore was not needed it was tonight, the purity of the playing was enough, I think I will carry this gig in my memory for a while to come. And next time Sanders returns to London I will not be so tardy in seeing the great man play.

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