Karma Pharoah Sanders

Legend has long said that Farrell Sanders was named ‘Pharoah’ by Sun Ra, though the reality is Sanders himself selected his stage name having also been known as ‘Little Rock’ after his Arkansas birthplace. What is undeniable, however, is that Pharoah Sanders was a critical force in the evolution of Jazz, helping to take the Free Jazz of John Coltrane and launch it in a new, more spiritual direction. Sadly, Sanders died aged 81 in September. As a way of remembrance, we look back at his most pivotal work ‘Karma’.

By 1969 Sanders was already a hugely influential voice in Jazz. Having joined John Coltrane in 1965, ending the days of the classic quartet, Sanders’ recorded ‘Ascension’ and ‘Meditations’ with Coltrane. His playing has been viewed as a major influence on ‘Trane’s deeper exploration of Free Jazz, as his overblowing techniques, in particular, contributed to their musical innovations as a tandem of groundbreaking, experimental saxophone players. Thus, after Coltrane’s death in 1967 Sanders became the spiritual successor to his mentor, with Ornette Coleman describing him as “probably the best tenor player in the world”.

Containing just two tracks, ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ which runs just short of 32 minutes long, and ‘Colors’ a 5 minute addendum of sorts, ‘Karma’ is a concise affair recorded in just two days, one for each track, in February 1969. Featuring a cast of top players including Leon Thomas on vocals, Sanders had full control over proceedings enabling a quick turnaround. Thomas, who had previously worked with Count Basie, would appear on five Sanders’ LPs, and would go on to work with Carlos Santana, had his original lyrics for the opening track vetoed by Sanders, who told him he wanted something more “spiritual”. The resultant lyrics perfectly fit the brief and notably follow the bass rather than the melodic line. The danger in so much Free Jazz is that unencumbered improvisation, competition between players, and the drive towards innovation results in messy sounds, where too much happens all at once. Relying on his expert band, Sanders’ provides space for expression and receives the same in return, allowing ‘The Creator…’ to unwind slowly and deliberately.

Opening with a sax phrase that echoes ‘A Love Supreme’, it is joined by flute and percussion in a fluttering intro before settling into the slow bass groove accompanied by zithers upon which Sanders begins to dig deeper into his expressive sax voyage. Lyrical and voicelike, Sanders begins relaxed and laid back until, about six and a half minutes in, his playing becomes more insistent. A minute later Thomas’ vocals come in, first as a repeated “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” that will appear, motif-like, throughout the piece and then introducing the main vocal line, “The Creator has a master plan, peace and love for every man”. Repeated with modifications throughout, the mantra captures the ethos prevalent at the very tail end of the 1960s’ hippie peace and love movement. As white Rock ‘n’ Roll was moving away from the free love spirit prevalent throughout the decade, Black Jazz, Funk, and Soul artists were reformulating the idea of peace and love as power politics. Redefined under a broad spirituality, God’s desire for peace and love was utilised as a powerful linguistic weapon against racist forces, classifying anti-racist discourse as God-given, and casting racist oppressors as heretical. Viewed under this context, ‘The Creator…’ is a step in a politically-conscious, spiritually awakened lineage that, within two years, finds Marvin Gaye releasing ‘What’s Going On’ and The Family Stone replying with ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’.

As lyrics give way to a yodel, inspired by traditional African Pygmy vocal styles, ‘The Creator…’ enters a new phase as the music becomes meditative. At the eleven minute mark yet another about face occurs, as Sanders’ sax retakes centre stage in a short celestial passage that gains intensity before the bass groove returns and piano joins. Over and over, wave after wave, the music swells with a heartfelt playing that feels communal and conversational while hinting at spirituality, transcendence, and a higher power. The momentum and overarching joy of the piece ensure that, while it is at heart a half hour long jam session, it remains approachable, even casual, easy listening. It’s also possible to get lost in its intricacies, finding new textures, layers, and quirks with every listen.

Track two, “Colors” is a more restrained piece with shimmering percussion and burbling horn layers, mixed with a tantalising bass line. Lyrically, Thomas tells of mother nature’s glow, recounting the colours he sees as if having reached a higher consciousness. Dreamlike and cinematic, ‘Colors’ appears as a broad widescreen landscape. At less than six minutes in run time, it is over too soon, as if a footnote to the main performance on ‘The Creator…’.

Drawing on spirituality and the latest innovations in Jazz, ‘Karma’ fit perfectly into the culture of its time while hinting at the political and musical changes of the early 1970s. More than that, Sanders’ playing was elevated to a new level, forming an engaging, innovative new expressivism that would help cement Spiritual Jazz as a genre in its own right. Espousing love, transcendence, intimacy, and the meditative power of music through his playing, ‘Karma’ underpins all later works intended to benefit our spiritual and mental health and wellness. As the vast power of music to benefit our body and mind becomes better researched and more well-known, the importance of Pharoah Sanders’ epic ‘Karma’ becomes more significant, its relevance increasing as we recognise the innumerable benefits of basking in such stimulating sounds. Pharoah Sanders left many musical gifts for the world, ‘Karma’ may be the most beneficial of all.

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