The annual DC Jazz Festival had a fabulous start for me. It came in the shape of Pharoah Sanders and his group that performed on Saturday, June 9th, at the City Winery. Despite having been a fan since the 1970s, I had actually never witnessed the legendary saxophonist perform live. I had invested in a prime seat at a table next to the stage and ordered a carafe of nice Sauvignon Blanc, so I was ready for the experience. And it didn’t disappoint me. In the bar waiting for the show to start I happened to sit next to a young man who drew my attention because he was reading an actual physical book while sipping a glass of Pinot Noir. Matthew had recently moved to DC for his first job after college. I was delighted to find that such a young person was a great fan of Pharoah Sanders. And not only that: the book he was reading turned out to be the Kenyan author and academic Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross. My faith in the future of humankind restored, I was in a suitable mood to receive Pharoah’s delivery of the universal language of music.
The group started with a lengthy meditative piece, a trademark of the master on which he played soothing long sounds on his tenor against a background of a bowed bass and drums played on soft mallets. The pianist ventured into a thoughtful solo while the leader sat down and listened with his eyes closed. The first piece then turned into a second, a medium-tempo modal tune with Spanish overtones. It provided a superb vehicle for all of the musicians’ solos. The piano solo reminded me of McCoy Tyner or Lonnie Liston Smith, both Sanders collaborators in the past. The drummer produced a highly musical solo against a steady rhythm provided by the bassist, his kit placed low with even the cymbals in a horizontal position. His work was complemented by that of the fierce looking percussionist wearing long-horned headgear.
Sanders at 77, his long beard now totally white, initially appeared slightly wobbly, taking short steps and sitting down frequently, but as the concert progressed he gained strength moving across the stage in tandem with the rhythms of the music. It was clear that he enjoyed the performance and listened appreciatively to his younger sidemen. He drew the audience along into a celebratory mood.
Sanders’ name is inextricably linked to that of John Coltrane. In 1964 Trane asked him to sit in with his band and, although Sanders never formally became a member of the group, he was a regular collaborator until Coltrane’s death in 1967. His own debut album as leader also came out in 1964. In those times, Sanders played unmitigated aggressive free jazz and had a raw, abrasive sound, which belied his history as a be-bop and R&B sax man. After Trane’s death, he collaborated for a while with the great man’s widow, the pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane. In the 1970s, Sanders’ style softened and became distinctly more lyrical, gaining influences from Asian music without losing its edge. This was the side of him we heard at the City Winery: a tenor sound that was mostly smooth and beautiful only to be punctuated by abrupt shrieks and honks.
Then another surprise move from the master as he launched into a rendition of the classic ballad A Nightingale Sang on Berkeley Square. It was a powerful yet lyrical performance that transfixed the audience. At the end of his solo, Pharoah even briefly allowed a rare glimpse at his be-bop chops.
The superb concert ended with a joyful romp in calypso style. It inspired the old master himself to dance to the music produced by his excellent band. Needless to say, the room exploded in a standing ovation as the music ended. Unfortunately, we were not treated to an encore, but we could all go home with a satisfied mind and a smile on our faces.