A Soulful 'Pharoah' Seeks to Please
at the Regattabar at the Charles Hotel
After thirty years of saxophonic transcendence, Pharoah Sanders has finally come to resemble his ancient Egyptian predecessors in appearance. Capped by a cylindrical black hat, with his long white beard flowing majestically onto his purple-span-gled shirt and sporting a nasty pair of shades, Sanders cut a mean figure at the Regattabar last Saturday night. The other members of the Pharoah Sanders Quartet wore loose-fitting African clothing, creating an atmosphere quite at odds with the upscale Regattabar and its corporate clientele. Unfortunately, it was only the visual appearance of Pharoah's group that was striking, as the saxophone master's normally fertile musical imagination seemed to wither in the sterile Cambridge setting.
The set got off a promising start when Sanders drove the enthusiastic audience into spasms of appreciation on the first number with high-register screams and bubbly flutter-tongues. Sanders' saxophone sound is unique, which is one of the reasons that he was able to create devastatingly effective soloing style in the 1960's while abandoning a harmonic framework.
Sanders rose from utter obscurity to relative fame when he joined John Coltrane's group in 1965 and began to scandalize and thrill audiences with his cataclysmic solos whose language was not melody but pure sound. Recordings from this period reveal a relentlessly experimental musician who can create fascinating textures with a seemingly infinite array of barks, yelps, squeals, buzzes, gurgles, and passionate cries. The grandiose scale of Coltrane's musical vision inspired Sanders to try and reach transcendence as he improvised for twenty or thirty minutes on compositions with names like "Peace on Earth" and "Love."
After Coltrane died in 1967, the majestic aspirations of Sander's music did not decrease, although the scale of his actual artistic achievements certainly did. Sanders won considerable popularity in his own right with albums that appealed to flower children and funkers alike, albums with names like "Karma" and "Evolution." In a sense, Sander's aesthetic was very similar to the transcendental early Seventies swill that stood on the corpse of acoustic jazz in the 1960's, althoughhis music was generally much more interesting andsoulful. In recent years, Sanders has achievedsuccess within the more narrowly defined world ofstraight-ahead jazz, employing his molten-leadtone and tastefully applied screams in effectiveversions of jazz standards.
It was this latest incarnation of Sanders--thesophisticated elder statesman--that one would haveanticipated at the Regattabar. But the spirit ofthe 1970's seemed to resurge while the Sandersgroup was here, and, with the exception of onelovely version of the ballad "It's Easy ToRemember," the entire set consisted of the sort ofeasily digestable yet funky vamps that one couldcall "Crowd-pleasures."
When Sanders chose to really play,instead of clowning around with the audience, hewas forceful and inspiring. At its best, the groupused the static harmonic framework of a model vampto create a spacious aural landscape. The courseof each tune was directed more towards detailingthat landscape than drawing out the linearprogression typical of most jazz improvisation. Attimes, the screams emanating from Sander's hornseemed like fiery blasts from the bowels of theEarth as the group reached a peak of model frenzy.Sanders seemed incapable of sustaining theenergy-level that this type of music demands,though, so these moments of epiphany werefleeting. In fact, the most convincing solos wereplayed by bassist Steve Neel, whose playing wasboth energetic and inventive.
When Sanders was not playing, he picked upvarious shakers and bells which he used to furtherthe pseudo-exotic atmosphere that teetered on thebrink between ritualistic splendour and purekitsch. Unfortunately, that line was irrevocablycrossed on the tune that ended the set. PianistWilliam Henderson moved over to a Casio keyboardand punched out a bubble-gum pop vamp whileSanders danced around the stage. Sanders thenpicked up a huge metal hemisphere, banged it witha mallet and let the reverberations from the belllinger until they faded to the infinite. Withthis, complete Karmic transcendence of the soulwas reached, although a curiously cheesy smellremained in the air for a long time after.