If You’re in the Song, Keep on Playing: An Interview With Pharoah Sanders – The New Yorker

Posted: January 17, 2020 at 1:43 pm


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Jazz musicians have always placed a premium on saying something. Technique, training, and theory will only get you so far, and may even lead you in the wrong direction; what matters is the ability to hit on an emotion or an idea that feels at once familiar and revelatoryto speak a common language in a decidedly uncommon way.

From this standpoint, few musicians have said more than the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of a school-cafeteria cook and a city employee, Sanders moved to New York in 1962, at the height of jazzs postwar avant-gardealso known as free jazz or the new thingwhich was spawned by the late-fifties experiments of the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the pianist Cecil Taylor. Sanderss dbut album, recorded in 1964 for the ESP label, garnered little attention, but his playing caught the ear of John Coltrane. Coltrane invited Sanders to join his band in 1965. The following year, Impulse!, the label that had been exhaustively documenting Coltranes evolution, gave Sanders another chance to record as a leader. The result was the surging and expansive Tauhid, an album that positioned Sanders as both Coltranes foremost disciple and an artist with ideas of his own.

Coltrane died in 1967, and Sanders recorded some with his widow, Alice Coltrane, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, before returning to the studio for Impulse! two years later, with his own group. The resulting album, Karma, set the template for a remarkable five-year run. While remaining as fiery as ever, Sanders had developed an interest in soaring, magisterial melodies, and the rhythms of his recordings, while dense and multi-layered, often hewed toward a steady groove. He also incorporated unexpected elements: non-Western instruments, yodelling by the sui generis vocalist Leon Thomas. As the title of Karma suggests, Sanders, like Coltrane, felt that music had a spiritual dimension. The whole musical persona of Pharoah Sanders is of a consciousness in conscious search of a higher consciousness, Amiri Baraka later wrote.

Subsequent Impulse! releases, such as Jewels of Thought, Thembi, and Black Unity, extended a musical quest that has now, in one form of another, lasted more than fifty years. But for someone who has said so much through music, Sanders has said very little to the press, doing only a handful of interviews in the course of his career. I spoke with Sanders earlier this fall, in Los Angeles, where he had just celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday by playing two shows in the area. Sanders still projects a distinctly Southern brand of soft-spokenness, one thats equal parts humility and aversion to fuss. Although he is an acknowledged master who has been honored at the Kennedy Center, he speaks of himselfand seems to sincerely regard himselfas just another working musician trying to make a living.

We talked about his beginnings as a musician, his approach to recording over the years, and his collaborations with jazz legends. But Sanders was more inclined to reflect on the challenge of finding a good reed than to dilate on his legacy. What really mattered, it seemed, was his feeling that he could never get it right. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that he wasnt being compulsively hard on himself or willfully oblivious. Rather, he was still searching, possibly for something that he knew he would never find.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

You just had your seventy-ninth birthdayhappy birthday!

Thank you.

What keeps you going, musically? Why are you still out there touring?

Well, I still try to make a living. I havent retired. Im not working that much, but, you know, jobs come through.

What are you trying to accomplish artistically at this point?

Right now, I dont even know myself!

Your sets these days touch on all the different things youve explored in your career. I saw you play in Portland earlier this year, and you played some standards and ballads as well older, more open-ended material, like The Creator Has a Master Plan,1 from Karma.

I just play whatever I feel like playing. Its hard to keep a band together these days, so I never know most of the time whos going to be in the band. Whoever I decide to use, if I can use them, well, thats it!

Lets go back to the beginning. Before you took up the saxophone, you played the clarinet in church?

I started playing drums first.

Oh, I didnt know that.

Then I wanted to play clarinet. I went to church every Sunday, and there was this memo up in church that someone had a metal clarinet. That person just passed away maybe a few days ago. He was about ninety-three or ninety-four. Thats how I got my first instrument. Seventeen dollars!

When did you switch to saxophone?

Well, in high school I was always trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a career. What I really wanted to do was play the saxophonethat was one of the instruments that I really loved. I started playing the alto. Its similar to the clarinetif you can play the clarinet, you can play the saxophone.

Why did you switch to tenor from alto? What did you like about the sound?

Tenor was the most popular instrument at that time to get work. I would rent the school saxophone. You could rent it every day if you wanted to. It wasnt a great horn. It was sort of beat-up and out of condition. I never owned a saxophone until I finished high school and went to Oakland, California. I had a clarinet, and so I traded that for a new silver tenor saxophone, and that got me started playing the tenor. The minute I bought it, I wanted an older horn, so I traded my new horn for an older model.

I read that you went to Oakland because you were studying art and you were going to go to art school.

I was painting all the time, pictures. I got into music very late. I used to do all that kind of work.

Have you painted at all since then?

No, I havent done anything for many, many years. Ive wanted to go back into it, but I just havent.

After just a couple of years in Oakland, you moved to New York. Had you decided to focus exclusively on music?

I had to get it all together. I didnt know enough about lots of thingsbasic things. I knew I needed to get some studying in, in order to get into playing saxophone, because I wanted to play jazz. So I had to cut out a lot of activities that I was doing and spend more time practicing scales and stuff like that.

Is it true that you were homeless when you first moved to the city?

I didnt have nowhere to stay. Everybody was talking about, You should go to New York. They said, Thats the place to go! So thats the reason I went to New York. I hitchhiked a ride to New York.

What year was this?

1962.

So, when you get there, the avant-gardeor whatever you want to call itis in full swing. Its been three years since Ornette Colemans residency2 at the Five Spot.3 Sun Ra has moved the Arkestra4 from Chicago to New York. Were you following all of this?

I didnt know what was going on. I was trying to survive some kind of way. I used to work a few jobs here and there, earn five dollars, buy some food, buy some pizza. I had no money at all. I used to give blood and make fifteen dollars or ten dollars or whatever. I had to keep eating something.

But you managed to establish yourself as a musician.

I always wanted to work with my own band, so I got some guys together and started working down in New York, in Greenwich Village. I could pick up a few little weekend jobs. You had to do something to survive.

Who was in that band with you, your first band?

I would ask around for some musicians, and we playedI didnt even hardly know their names.

Was Billy Higgins5 in that band? I read that you two knew each otherand that he was homeless, too.

Billy Higgins, he would come around in that location a lot, in the Village. I met him, and I heard him play. On occasion, we kind of talked a little bit about the music, and I found out how great he was. I started listening to some of his recordings. Like I said, all the time, I was still trying to find some type of job or workit didnt matter whether it was playing music or whatever it was. There was one time I got a job being a chef, cooking, in order to survive.

You started working with the Arkestra in 1964, and then, in September, 1965, you joined Coltranes band.6 That was a lot of peoples first exposure to you. Do you know why he chose you?

I dont even know the reason myself. I dont feel like he needed me or another horn. I think he just felt like he was going to do something different.

What was it like to work with him? Theres an idea of him as this saint-like figure.

His whole demeanor reminded me of a minister. He didnt act like a lot of musicians that Ive met in my life. John, he was always extremely quiet. He didnt say anything unless you asked him something. I never asked him anything about music.

Really?

Never.

But he was making a conscious choice to work with younger musicians.

He always had some kind of a way of looking to the future, like a kaleidoscope. He saw himself playing something different. And it seemed like he wanted to get to that level of playingI dont know if it was a dream that came to him, but thats what he wanted to do. I couldnt figure out why he wanted me to play with him, because I didnt feel like, at the time, that I was ready to play with John Coltrane. Being around him was almost, like, Well, what do you want me to do? I dont know what Im supposed to do.

He always told me, Play. Thats what I did.

What was your relationship with him like?

I loved being around him because I dont talk that much, either. It was just good vibes between us both. We were just very quiet. All the time that Id been listening to John, Im hearing something else, just being around him. He would never start some kind of conversationhe would say something, but it wouldnt last that long. He never would elaborate, or go deep into it. He said a few words, and that was it.

Was he funny at all? Did he ever joke around?

He had a sense of humor about him, I think. One time, Jimmy Cobb was playing with him, and his stick got loose, and it went across to John and hit him, or something. John said, Yeah, hes just trying to get back at me.

His sense of humor was in his music. Sometimes hed remind me of Monk.7 John would play things Monk would play, but it was a little bit different, faster. Id turn around and look and say, Oh. O.K.

Monks music is definitely humorous, but I dont think many people hear that in Coltrane.

He got a lot of stuff from being around Monk. He didnt sound like Monk, but he understood the humor.

After John passed away, you continued recording with Alice Coltrane.8

You know, her playing was amazing. I loved what she was doing. But I always felt like what I was doing wasnt good enough. Maybe I was playing a little bit more dominant than what she wantedshe seemed more intellectual than I was. But I tried to play something close to the concept that she was doing.

At one point, I had told her, I dont know if you like the way Im playing or not. I dont know whether this fits, or what. She said, Youre doing O.K. Just keep on playing. Keep on blowing.

Around this time you also start leading your own bands, and you start recording for Impulse! as a leader. Did you feel like you knew what you were doing then?

No, I dont think I was really ready. But I had to go on anyway, and study while I was trying to get it all together. I knew I had to be better than what I was. I had to keep moving. I learned a lot from John. I remember I used to talk to Philly Joe Jones.9 I talked to a lot of different people.

On those Impulse! records, youre experimenting a lot with non-Western instruments, finding ways to use vocals in a freer context, and getting into more groove-oriented rhythms. Were you thinking through things in advance or just figuring them out in the studio?

We just worked it out while we was there. That kind of spontaneous move.

You started working with some musicians who people didnt know well at the time, like Leon Thomas,10 Lonnie Liston Smith,11 Sonny Sharrock.12 What were you looking for when you heard them?

I was looking for musicians who played with lots of energy. I wanted to be able to play that way myself. In order to do that, I had to find musicians to work with who had that kind of energy.

You were making incredibly intense music during this period, on albums like Jewels of Thought and Thembi. Was that just where your head was at that timeconstantly in a kind of heightened state?

I dont know. I was still trying to reach for something, I didnt know what.

Today people call this music spiritual jazz. But it wasnt like anyone sat down at a table and said, Lets invent this whole new kind of music.

It just happened. Thats the way I look at it. It just happened. I was never satisfied with my playing, for a long, long time. Still sort of have problems like that.

Still? Do you feel like youve ever had a moment, or a record, where youve been, like, I got this one right?

No.

Really?

I used to hear other bands, other groups, when they were making a recording. And a lot of musicians Id hear would be working on one song maybe for, could be a week, or a few weeks. Make sure everything is right.

You, on the other hand, were recording two or three albums a year with Impulse! Was that how often the label wanted you in the studio?

Well, they wanted a certain number of records a year, being signed with somebody. The thing you dont want to do is make them too close together, playing the same way as you were before. Youve got to do something fresh. Some people like to wait for that kind of thing to happen.

But thats not how you approached it.

I just felt like going in there and doing what I wanted to do.

Would the label give you any direction, or were they hands-off?

They tried to let you know how many songs to play. I just kind of ignored it. Sometimes, I would just play one tune for the whole side. I just kept on playing, like it was a suite. Looking from one thing to another. If youre in the song, keep on playing.

Did you rehearse?

No, we never rehearsed.

Did you ever do more than one take?

Maybe on a few things we did, something where I didnt really like the way I first got started up and started out playing. But whenever I heard it back, I kind of liked it, so I said, Well, I should have kept it. Anyways, its too late now.

It kind of taught me something else. It made me think, Why do I have to do it this way? Lets keep on playing until it all comes together. Thats what we did. Thats what I always do. You know, try to keep on creating.

Youve mentioned several times now having not liked how your playing soundedthis seems tied into the idea of your always searching for something new. Is there any recording where youre happy with your sound?

I havent made it yet. Sometimes on my horn, a couple of notes, Im feeling satisfied with it, but the rest of the notes just is not sounding right. So Im still working on that.

I have a problem with finding the right reeds, and the right mouthpiece, the right horns. I used to buy boxes of reeds, and if they dont play right Id just throw them right on the floor, put them in the trash. Maybe a box of threes, or a box of fours. They never sound the same.

Do you think most musicians think this way? Are you all just perfectionists?

I dont know. I know when I listen to other musicians, they sound beautiful to me. When I hear myself playing, I sound like They sound beautiful. I just wonder, what are they all using?

What do you listen to these days?

I havent been listening to anybody.

Not even older stuff?

I havent been listening to anything.

I listen to things that maybe some guys dont. I listen to the waves of the water. Train coming down. Or I listen to an airplane taking off.

Have you always been listening for sounds like that?

Ive always been like that, especially when I was small. I used to love hearing old car doors squeaking. Maybe its something youre really into, then maybe youll get a sound like that. I just wondered, Would that be a good sound?

Sometimes, when Im playing, I want to do something, but I feel like, if I did, it wouldnt sound right. So Im always trying to make something that might sound bad sound beautiful in some way. Im a person who just starts playing anything I want to play, and make it turn out to be maybe some beautiful music.

When you were first in the public eye, with Coltrane, people didnt get that.

I dont know if I got it myself.

Do you go back and listen to your recordings?

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If You're in the Song, Keep on Playing: An Interview With Pharoah Sanders - The New Yorker

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January 17th, 2020 at 1:43 pm