Jazz CD Reviews

Pharoah Sanders – The Pharoah Sanders Story: In the Beginning 1963-1964 – ESP-Disk [4-CD set]

Unreleased Don Cherry and Paul Bley, plus Sun Ra? It’s all part of a comprehensive package devoted to saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ early years.

Published on July 30, 2012

Pharoah Sanders – The Pharoah Sanders Story: In the Beginning 1963-1964 – ESP-Disk [4-CD set]

Pharoah Sanders – The Pharoah Sanders Story: In the Beginning 1963-1964 [4-CD set] – ESP-Disk ESP-4069, CD 1: 53:07, CD 2: 57:15, CD 3: 47:46, CD 4: 59:38 [6/26/12] (Distr. by Naxos) ****:

(Disc 1:  Don Cherry Quintet: Cherry – cornet, piano; Pharoah Sanders – tenor sax; Joe Scianni – piano; David Izenzon – bass; J.C. Moses – drums. Paul Bley Quartet: Bley – piano; Sanders – tenor sax; Izenzon – bass; Paul Motian – drums

Disc 2: Pharoah Sanders Quintet: Sanders – tenor sax; Stan Foster – trumpet; Jane Getz – piano; William Bennett – bass; Marvin Pattillo – drums

Disc 3: Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra: Ra – piano, celeste; Sanders – tenor sax; Black Harold {Harold Murray} – flute, log drums; Al Evans – trumpet; Teddy Nance – trombone; Marshall Allen – alto sax, flute, percussion; Pat Patrick – baritone sax; Alan Silva, Ronnie Boykins – bass; Clifford Jarvis, Jimmhi Johnson – drums

Disc 4: same as Disc 3, add Art Jenkins – space voice)

New York City in the early to mid-1960s could be a tough time for jazz artists who were operating outside of the norm. One of the those musicians who struggled when he arrived in the Big Apple in 1961 was tenor saxophonist Farrell Sanders, who is better known as Pharoah Sanders (an appellation bestowed on Sanders by Sun Ra, an early supporter). Sanders’ lean years, punctuated by sleeping on the subway, pawning his saxophone and donating blood for cash, eventually improved as Sanders got gigs around town and the backing of fellow likeminded musicians. Sanders appeared with and recorded frequently, from 1965-1967, in John Coltrane’s group, although Sanders was never an official member. But before Sanders’ name became synonymous with avant-garde and free jazz, he worked with other jazz players as he honed his own unique skills and sound.

The pre-Coltrane days are the focus of the 4-CD archival anthology, The Pharoah Sanders Story: In the Beginning 1963-1964, which includes studio and live sessions featuring Sanders with the Paul Bley Quartet, the Don Cherry Quintet, Sun Ra & his Solar Arkestra as well as the short-lived Pharoah Sanders Quintet. The set also has interviews with Sanders, Sun Ra, Cherry, Bley and ESP producer Bernard Stollman.

Sanders’ first benefactor was Cherry. The two performed at a Pratt University student art exhibition and Cherry invited Sanders to a studio session. That unreleased material fills the first half of CD 1. The quintet consists of Cherry (on cornet and piano), Sanders, pianist Joe Scianni, bassist David Izenzon (who would later be in Ornette Coleman’s band, and also participated in Paul Bley’s quartet) and in-demand drummer J.C. Moses (who was with Cherry in the New York Contemporary Five, and afterward was with Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk). The five tunes display Sanders’ emerging tone, although it’s not clear when the music was recorded (either early 1963 or early 1964: imprecise studio notes don’t help). Up first are two distinct takes of Cherry’s “Cocktail Piece,” which are idiosyncratic and collectively improvised: the pieces are obviously influenced by Coleman’s harmolodic theory, but both versions also reveal Cherry’s mélange style where various melodic lines are juxtaposed. “Cherry’s Dilemma” is also an open-ended venture, with solos from Izenzon and Scianni, and incorporates some high-rolling drive from Moses, who keeps the track moving as fast as a bebop number. The Cherry session closes with two notable cuts. There is an animated elegy, “Remembrance,” which would become part of a broadened medley on Cherry’s 1965 LP Complete Communion; and Cherry concludes with a rough-hewn, four-minute solo piano pastiche of Thelonious Monk themes: this is unmistakably a rehearsal or warm-up which is historically intriguing but otherwise negligible. The second half of CD 1 contains a May 1964 studio engagement with Paul Bley’s quartet: Bley on piano, Sanders on sax, Izenzon again on bass and Paul Motian on drums. The music, all written by Carla Bley, includes two takes of “Generous I” and “Walking Woman” and one rendering of “Ictus.” While the context exhibits dissonance and free-form interpretative exploration, the music has a character different from the Cherry session. The difficult melodic lines often ebb and rise, thus providing a controlled sense of chaos. Sanders executes some enthusiastic and occasionally brusque tenor soloing but never strays beyond the framework of Bley’s music and does not pull energy away from the other musicians.

Most Sanders fans may find CD 2 the most appealing, since it has two extended Sanders pieces, the 26-minute foray “Seven by Seven” and the 23-minute long “Bethera.” Both creations are bookended by Sanders interviews where he comments about playing with or getting to know other musicians, who would subsequently have larger impacts on jazz, such as Billy Higgins, Archie Shepp and Marion Brown. The two lengthy tracks have been reissued several times as Pharoah’s First, so if someone is only interested in these two tunes, they might forego this 4-CD collection.  Alongside Sanders is a little-known unit: trumpeter Stan Foster (not the pop and show band arranger), pianist Jane Getz (who also had credits with Charles Mingus, the unrelated Stan Getz and others), bassist William Bennett and drummer Marvin Pattillo (who also worked with Sonny Simmons).  Caveat emptor: despite the extensive solo space afforded to everyone, this is fairly subdued if contrasted to what Sanders did later. Both Getz and Foster are given lots of solo room, but a noticeable obstacle is the quintet plays bebop-influenced changes, while Sanders does not: he clearly wants to go outside of predictable restrictions, but mostly curbs his ambition in order to complement the rest of the musicians. One can hear the beginning of Sanders’s Coltrane-impacted tone, especially at the start of “Seven by Seven,” where there is a hint or two of Sanders’s characteristic sax screech, which he returns to at the tune’s end, where there are also some trumpet/sax exchanges. But Foster and Sanders do not truly connect to each other. Things do not improve on “Bethera,” where Foster and Getz have expansive solos, but function as if Sanders is not in the same room. The backing musicians probably would have sounded okay supporting someone like Gene Ammons or Sonny Stitt, but they do not balance Sanders with their bop-ish conventions.

CDs 3 and 4 comprise Sanders’s brief tenure with the Sun Ra Arkestra, when Arkestra mainstay John Gilmore left the group to tour with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The two live programs were taped at New York City’s Judson Hall on Dec. 30-31, 1964 (the first show is offered in stereo while the second is in mono). While Sanders definitely fits into Sun Ra’s otherworldly oeuvre, these recordings are ensemble efforts which celebrate Sun Ra’s vision, and focus on a collective expression for multiple instruments, so Sanders’s contributions, although not trivial, are necessarily minor compared to the larger group interaction. Some of this material was initially brought out in 1976 as Sun Ra: with Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold, which ESP-Disk’ reissued and expanded a few years ago for the CD market, and promoted as a complete set with 45 minutes of hitherto unreleased music, with accurately annotated personnel listing and updated liner notes. A highpoint of the 12/30/64 concert is the 22-minute translation of “The Shadow World,” an intense and progressive piece which includes a generous Sanders sax solo. Unfortunately, the concert volume is low and this becomes a problem when quieter instruments such as the bass take center stage. Another stand-out is “We Travel the Spaceways,” which melds mainstream moments with ethno-musical segments, and which had been issued only a couple of months prior on Sun Ra’s first New York album, The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra. The final disc is prime Sun Ra Arkestra music and the mono sound in no way impairs the listening experience, although the muted volume is still a concern. Flutist Black Harold (Harold Murray) is prominent on two parts to “The Voice of Pan,” while there is an energetic hard bop/r&b fusion which propels “Rocket Number 9,” where the three-sax front line (Sanders, Marshall Allen on alto and Pat Patrick on baritone) is excellent. A four-minute percussion solo, “The Talking Drum,” seems too much, but overall this is music Sun Ra enthusiasts will appreciate if they have not heard it before. Both CDs are accompanied by more interview sections, where Sun Ra discusses being a neglected musician; and Sanders mentions how he met Coltrane. The boxed set also has a 32-page booklet with discographical notation, photos, and comprehensive liner notes by Russ Musto. The ESP-Disk label has provided online excerpts from The Pharoah Sanders Story (CD 1 here, CD 2 here and CD3 here) so prospective buyers can preview selected interviews and music.

TrackList: CD 1: Pharoah Sanders interview; Cocktail Piece (first variation, take 1); Cocktail Piece (first variation, take 2); studio engineer announcement; Cherry’s Dilemma; studio engineer announcement; Rememberance (first variation); Thelonious Monk Medley: Light Blue/Coming on the Hudson/Bye-Ya/Ruby My Dear; Don Cherry interviews; Paul Bley interview; Generous 1 (take 1); Generous 1 (take 2); Walking Woman (take 1); Walking Woman (take 2); Ictus; after session conversation.

CD 2: Sanders interview; Bernard Stollman interview; Seven by Seven; Bethera; Sanders interview.

CD 3: Sanders interview; Dawn Over Israel; The Shadow World; The Second Stop Is Jupiter; Discipline #9; We Travel the Spaceways.

CD 4: Sun Ra interview; Gods on Safari; The Shadow World; Rocket #9; The Voice of Pan (part 1); Dawn over Israel; Space Mates, The Voice of Pan (part 2); The Talking Drum; Conversation with Saturn; The Next Stop Mars; The Second Stop Is Jupiter; Pathway to the Outer Known; Sun Ra interview; 3 Sanders interviews.

—Doug Simpson




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