A spiritual sound: The life and influence of Pharoah Sanders

Spirituality was always a core component of Pharoah Sanders’ work. In all their messy, joyful, heartbreaking moments, his songs transcended their studio environments to become discussions on the intersection of music and the divine, of faith and secular experience. A saxophonist with no inclination toward conventional production, he felt most at home eschewing jazz traditions in favor of something more abjectly emotional and prone to sudden rhythmic deconstruction. Known for his multiphonic approach to sax technique, his music was sprawling and immersive and swallowed you whole. It was a privilege to hear and captured the manic movements of life better than almost any other artist (save his contemporaries John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler).

Sanders died on September 24 at the age of 81, and despite the wealth of material he left for us to revel in, I feel a pain that isn’t going to fade for some time. It’s the same feeling I had when Vic Chesnutt and Leonard Cohen passed away. Sanders provided a respite in hard times, a challenge during complacency, and support when the world turned its back. His voice — his saxophone — was a singular gift, a sound that spoke to cavernous emotions through unheralded intimacy. Throughout a career that lasted over 60 years, he shepherded jazz through shifting fashions and sociopolitical landscapes, intent on positioning the genre as experiential balm rather than staid musical categorization.

When he was just getting started, he befriended Sun Ra, who would provide him with clothes and a place to live — Ra also gifted him the name “Pharoah” and encouraged him to follow his instincts in regards to his own music. He was soon playing with John Coltrane and working to shape the sound which he came to adopt in his own compositions. And even though he was surrounded by countless jazz icons, he never sacrificed in his determination to discover what jazz meant to him. His debut album, Pharoah’s First, was released in 1965 but wasn’t what he envisioned it to be — the backing musicians weren’t connected to his idea of jazz and, while remarkable for a debut, it didn’t represent Sanders or his music as he intended.

He signed to Impulse! in 1966, and it was during this time that he was able to fully execute the sound he had imagined. His sophomore album, Tauhid, was released the following year, and it solidified his reputation as one of jazz’s foremost innovators. Two years later, he recorded and released Karma, a 2-track monument to his genius, and to the restorative properties of music. He would continue testing the limits of the genre on 1970’s Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun) and 1971’s Thembi, further working to expand the boundaries of jazz traditions while creating entirely new ones as they felt appropriate. 

As the years past, Sanders’ dedication to jazz became more than just the passing urges of an aging musician. His work maintained a level of mesmeric adaptation few others could even broach, let along understand in all its complexity. Between 1974’s Love in Us All‘s genre-vivisection and the volatile spirituality of 1979’s Journey to the One, Sanders wasn’t content to just unravel the threads holding the genre together — he wanted to find new meaning in what had become a series of familiar sonic territories. 

And then we come to the ’80s: a wasteland for many artists attempting to latch onto glammed-up aesthetics and artificial musical fads. But for Sanders, it was a chance to introduce his brand of mindbogglingly affecting jazz to a whole new generation pummeled by corporate advertising and designed-by-committee pop acts. And unsurprisingly, it was a challenge that he surmounted through the riotous examination and evolution of various jazz histories. 1981’s Rejoice was a statement of intent from Sanders, an energetic “fuck you” to all the artists who felt it necessary to compromise their creativity to appeal to a broader market of potential fans.

This era of his career reached a peak on 1987’s Africa, a visceral and necessary addition to jazz canon that validated the genre’s and Pharoah’s own relevance toward the end of the decade. 1989’s Moon Child was also a welcome distraction from the glitzy spectacle of mainstream music, and though it didn’t quite reach the heights of Africa, it was a spark that kept alive hopes for jazz to rise above the flood of easy-listening detritus that had packed radio waves throughout the decade. The ’90s were also a creative black hole for the genre (unless you knew where to look) — but Sanders offered up Crescent with Love and Ballads of Love as proof that he was still comfortable and adept at moving within and outside the confines of the genre, and while not quite as essential as earlier recordings, these were fine additions to an already illustrious career.

Throughout the ’00s and ’10s, Sanders found himself acting more as side-person rather than solo artist, grafting his talents onto collaborative albums with Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio, Tisziji Muñoz, and a host of others. But it wasn’t until he joined forces with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra on 2021’s free-jazz meditation Promises that his reputation was once again spoken of with hallowed adoration. The album joined his combustible jazz impulses with the electronic mutations of Floating Points to create a rewarding exploration of decades of influence and inspiration.

Much like his ’80s records, Promises reintroduced Sanders to a new generation of artists and fans raised on viral sensations and musical fluidity. It was a captured bolt of lightning, a genuine miracle of rhythmic associations. Praised for its long-form complexities and Sanders’ emotive techniques, the album lent further credence to the legends surrounding the saxophonist. It’s hard to say that it was a comeback album — Sanders never really went anywhere — but it certainly brought him back to the forefront of our collective musical consciousness. 

And now his voice is gone, a sound so filled with joy, longing, and a need to awaken our own desires that I can’t help but tear up at the thought of never hearing him perform in person. Over the next few weeks (and even longer likely), I’ll be diving through all his records, finding new wonders with each listen and attempting to commune with the spirits he so often conjured. The noise may have come from his instrument but it was created first in his heart, expressed as only he knew how, a comfort over decades of personal struggle and social upheaval. I’ll never forget what his music gave to me, and I will miss him more than I can say.