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R.I.P. Pharoah Sanders, Pioneering Jazz Saxophonist Dead at 81

Sanders played with John and Alice Coltrane and shaped free and spiritual jazz

pharoah sanders dead
Pharoah Sanders, photo by Lior Phillips

    Pharoah Sanders, the saxophonist who played with John Coltrane and helped pioneer the spiritual jazz movement, has died at age 81. The label Luaka Bop announced his death, saying in a statement, “He died peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace.”

    Farrell Sanders was born on October 13th, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas. His first instrument was clarinet, but he began playing the tenor saxophone in high school, and even led his school’s band when they were in between directors. After moving to Oakland, he met John Coltrane, and began playing in his band in New York City in 1965. He played on a dozen Coltrane albums in the 1960s. Around the same time, Sanders met Sun Ra, who nicknamed him Pharoah.

    Sanders released his first solo album, Pharoah’s First, in 1965. The following year he signed to Impulse! Records, where albums like Karma, Thembi, Elevation, Black Unity, and Love in Us All caught the attention of jazz musicians and critics. While Pharoah’s First was a more straightforward record, over time Sanders’ music became more heavily rooted in free jazz, and his interest in religious concepts like Karma and Tawhid helped pioneer spiritual jazz. His experimentations with different modes and use of overblowing and multiphonic techniques also shaped the direction of the genre.

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    Sanders was also a frequent collaborator with Leon Thomas and Alice Coltrane. Thomas lent his famous yodel to Karma, while Sanders played on Coltrane albums like A Monastic Trio and Journey in Satchidananda. His last album, 2021’s Promisesfeatured Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. After news of Sanders’ death broke, Floating Points wrote on Twitter, My beautiful friend passed away this morning. I am so lucky to have known this man, and we are all blessed to have his art stay with us forever. Thank you Pharoah.”

     

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