Tuesday, October 13, 2009

October 13: Pharoah Sanders, "Karma"

Artist: Pharoah Sanders
Album: Karma
Year: 1969
Label: Impulse!

In the opinion of many, there is in fact a "holy trinity" of jazz saxophonists who all played essential roles in the shaping of the genre. Within this belief, John Coltrane is seen as "the father," and Albert Ayler is "the holy ghost." The role of "the son" is attributed to one of jazz's most "far out" characters, a man who played alongside both of the other jazz icons, the unmistakable Pharoah Sanders. A performer who remains most noted for the sheer force and power of his playing, there has truly never been another player quite like Sanders. It is difficult to understate Sanders' importance in the overall evolution of jazz. As an integral part of the final ensembles of John Coltrane, Sanders played one some of the most innovative and highly controversial records the genre has ever heard. These ensembles of the mid to late 1960's truly "threw out" the books on traditional jazz and concentrated on a completely organic and strangely structured sound. It was very much due to Sanders' sheer power that Coltrane brought him on board, and the truth of the matter is, both of these jazz giants pushed one another equally throughout the final years of Coltrane's life. After Coltrane's passing, Sanders quickly formed his own group and continued to push into uncharted territory, remaking the assumptions of "what" constituted jazz. Finding perfection and recording one of the most stunning compositions ever committed to tape, Pharoah Sanders has rarely been more extraordinary then on his absolutely monumental 1969 recording, Karma.

At first glance, one of the main reasons that Karma is so stunning is immediately apparent, with the "A side" containing a single song, yet clocking in at nearly thirty-three minutes. "The Creator Has A Master Plan" is a true masterpiece of unrivaled proportions, and it perfectly represents the wild, controlled chaos that Sanders seeks on his recordings. The mood of the record is the epitome of the new sound in jazz that was being labeled as "spiritual jazz" and "energy music," and after experiencing the half hour track, one can clearly understand why the sound was being given such classification. The composition is a musical experience like no other ever recorded, and the textures created by the musicians is nothing short of stunning. It is within the opening of "The Creator Has A Master Plan" that one can clearly hear Sanders playing a tribute to his mentor (Coltrane), as the opening of the song has a strangely similar opening style as one will find on Coltrane's legendary "A Love Supreme." The song is one of the most complex and unusual compositions ever recorded, yet it is similarly one of the most accessible "lengthy" jazz pieces. Far more "listener friendly" then many of the other marathon jazz pieces (read as: Coltrane's Ascension), the musicians create a stunningly upbeat, and truly "religious" experience on the track.

This ability to keep things fresh and engaging for more than a half hour is a testament to the sensational talent of each of the musicians on the album. "The Creator Has A Master Plan" features two of the most important collaborators that Sanders had in the forms of percussionist and vocalist Leon Thomas and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith. Thomas co-wrote the piece, and his vocals on the track are often so wild and primitive that they almost sound like Sanders' saxophone, yet there is also a point where he is unquestionably yodeling on the track. With his songs being sampled by everyone from Jay-Z to Mary J Blige, as well as spending time alongside Miles Davis, few can argue that Lonnie Liston Smith's piano work on Karma remains his crowning achievement. Due to his previous work with Sun Ra, it is no surprise that the flute of James Spaulding is easily one of the most amazing aspects of "The Creator Has A Master Plan." Whether it is jaw-dropping progressions or simply fluttering and squeaking along with the rest of the group, Spaulding is truly in a class all his own and is one of the most enjoyable players on the composition. Yet another jazz legend, bassist Richard Davis, plays on "The Creator Has A Master Plan," and like the others, he too has rarely sounded better. Having played with everyone from Andrew Hill to Eric Dolphy and even Bruce Springsteen, few bassist have as impressive a resumé. Truth be told, "The Creator Has A Master Plan" is far and away one of the most stunning compositions ever recorded, and it is very much due to the unbelievable group of musicians that are featured on the recording.

Whether he is playing a gorgeous, winding melody, or over-blowing with absolutely incredible sonic results, Sanders is able to achieve a strangely relaxed mood throughout the entire album. This contrast is truly amazing, as the band is playing with amazing power and speed, yet they are simultaneously undeniably comfortable and laid back. This serves as a testament to both the extraordinary talent of the players, as well as the environment which Sanders created within the studio. Karma represents Pharoah Sanders' third album leading his own band, and it is clear that the record represents his musical apex. Having clearly learned a great deal from Coltrane, Karma presents Sanders as one of the most confident and focused musicians ever. His sound and playing are stronger then ever, and even in what often seems like musical chaos, it is clear that Sanders knows exactly where he wants the song to go, and his performance is truly stunning. "The Creator Has A Master Plan" perfectly represents everything that makes Sanders so amazing, as the composition is structured enough to mesmerize even the most casual listener, yet there are a number of moments where Sanders and his band absolutely explode in musical brilliance, and this is the key aspect that makes Sanders so revered. Truth be told, Karma is an album that music be experienced first-hand to be properly understood, and after listening to "The Creator Has A Master Plan," one cannot deny Sanders' place among jazz music's most elite members.

Having worked alongside John Coltrane and being a major player in any of his bands is certainly enough to make someone an important part of jazz history. However, Pharoah Sanders truly worked WITH Coltrane, and each gave as much as they took from one another. Sanders pushed Coltrane to further reaches in his final years, and it is nearly impossible to picture any of the final recordings of Coltrane without the presence and influence of Sanders. By far one of the most, if not THE most important players in the progression of the most forceful, yet more spiritual form of jazz that dominated the late 1960's and 1970's, the style and sound of Pharoah Sanders remains in a class all its own. Throughout the thirty-minute-plus "The Creator Has A Master Plan," Sanders presents his entire range of musical weaponry, beautifully over-blowing at some points, exploring modal sounds at others, and truly encapsulating what it means to have a "lyrical" feel to a jazz piece. It doesn't hurt his cause that he is surrounded by some of the most talented and famous jazz players in history, most notably a pre-funk Lonnie Liston Smith, fellow icon James Spaulding, and one of Sanders' most important collaborators, Leon Thomas. Bringing this all together and moving as a phenomenal, single unit, the group is responsible for one of the most extraordinary jazz recordings ever made, "The Creator Has A Master Plan." In turn, this sensational moment in jazz history makes Pharoah Sanders' 1969 release, Karma, one of the most important and influential albums ever recorded, and one must truly experience it firsthand to properly understand why the recording is so significant and stunning.

Standout tracks: "The Creator Has A Master Plan" and "Colors."

No comments: