Saturday Night: Pharaoh Sanders at Yoshi's Oakland

Categories: Last Night, Music
PharoahSandersQuentin LeBoucher.jpg

Pharaoh Sanders
Yoshi's Oakland
Jan. 3, 2009
Review by Eric K. Arnold

Better Than: Watching Kenny G on Craig Kilborn.

Pharaoh Sanders has an impeccable jazz pedigree. One of the titans of the way-out, dissonant style known as free jazz, the tenor saxophonist emerged in the mid-'60s as a counterpart and bandmate of both Sun Ra and John Coltrane, as well as a solo artist in his own right. His recordings for Impulse, including Tauhid, Karma, and Thembi, were deeply spiritual, meditative works which -- along with Coltrane's Om and Ascension, both of which featured Sanders -- defined the high point of free jazz' commercial popularity.

Like Coltrane, Ra and, later, Ornette Coleman, Sanders experimented with modal, harmonic, and tonal forms, as if channeling both ancient primal rhythms and extraterrestrial frequencies. Many of his classic albums referenced Afrocentricity and/or metaphysics, and in the mid-and late '90s, he made three world music-tinged albums with producer Bill Laswell. An influence on Lonnie Liston Smith - an innovator of '70s jazz/R&B fusion who cut his teeth with Pharaoh - Sanders' most enduring work is probably "The Creator Has a Master Plan," a mix of gospel chants and avant-garde free jazz, originally conceived as a response to Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." The song has been covered by Leon Thomas and Louis Armstrong, updated as a jazz/house club anthem by the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, and, most recently, referenced on scientist Stephen Hawkings' blog.

Sanders has long been associated with Oakland (where the Little Rock, Arkansas, native spent his young adulthood), making his annual stint at Yoshi's a homecoming of sorts. With 2009 still in swaddling clothes, it seemed a good time to revisit the free jazz master with the Kemetic title, a musical visionary who has always seemed to have one foot in the past and another in the future.

The house was as packed as Yoshi's on a Saturday night could be. Among the standing room-only crowd were several members of Sanders' family, one of whom was overheard saying, "we gon' have some fun tonight."

At about 8:15 p.m., Sanders emerged, wearing a silver button-down shirt which matched his silver hair and beard. He began with a slow, bluesy invocation, soloing with fluid melodicism, stepping away from center stage to let the three-piece band set the mood, then returning for a gentle second solo.

The next tune started with a lengthy piano intro before the rhythm section kicked in, laying down the groove at a breakneck pace. About ten minutes in, Sanders returned to loud cheers. This time, he started attacking the rhythm, upping the intensity with a high-pitched, wailing, bleating, blistering solo. His saxophone screamed wildly as dissonant notes filled the air, then almost imperceptibly retraced the song's core melody.

And so it went. Sanders seemed truly dynastic on stage, his commanding presence having a notable effect on the younger musicians, who seemed eager to test their mettle in the company of the jazz great. During a long drum solo, someone in the crowd blurted out, "give the drummer some." Every piano interlude was met with palpable appreciation as well.

The trio of backing musicians alone would have been good enough to satisfy the pickiest jazz aficionado, but when you add the Pharaoh to the equation, you have something special indeed. For all the apparent chaos of free jazz, there are soothing elements to it, and Sanders' tonal palette stretched from grating and reedy to smooth and supple.

The 68 year-old Sanders demonstrated a few dance moves before launching into a boogie-woogie jam, led a call-and-response chant, and flirted with conventional jazz before returning to his crazy, screeching wails. He closed with his signature tune, "The Creator Has a Master Plan," which saw him assume lead vocal duties and initiate another call-and-response chorus. Riffing on the line "the power of God," he gave his family a shout-out, then disappeared backstage, to the chagrin of the crowd, who still wanted more.
All in all, a powerful and musically adept beginning to a new year.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: I once owned a copy of Tauhid on vinyl.

Random Detail: Yoshi's grilled calamari has unfortunately disappeared from their menu, replaced by the far more pedestrian fried variety.

By the Way: For a complete Sanders discography, visit

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