The music that saxophonist Pharoah Sanders made in the late Sixties and early Seventies will probably always be categorized as jazz. But that seems wrong, somehow. Where bebop is all about form and its infinite variations, the sounds put forth on Sanders albums such as 1967's Tauhid, 1969's Jewels of Thought, and 1970's Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun) – records filled with celebratory Latin grooves; vicious, often cacophonous sax playing; and expansive drone-like bliss-outs – seem far more concerned with the Infinite.
And that idea still resonates today. It's the driving force, for example, behind the music of breakout saxist Kamasi Washington, whose entire approach – large band, long songs, spirituality to spare – feels like the second coming of Pharoah. (Meanwhile, the 77-year-old Sanders continues to tour the world.)
Originally released on the Impulse! label and reissued this month individually and in a deluxe three-LP set courtesy of Anthology Recordings, these albums find the Little Rock, Arkansas–born Farrell Sanders – he started going by "Pharoah" in the early Sixties while working with the ancient-Egypt–inspired Sun Ra – near the start of his career as a bandleader. Tauhid, the earliest album in this set, is the saxophonist's sophomore outing. By the time Deaf Dumb Blind was released, Pharoah was only about 30, but he had seen a lot by then: In addition to making his own recordings and gigging with Ra, he had spent almost two years in John Coltrane's final working band, which featured Alice Coltrane on piano. Like those artists and Sun Ra, Pharoah became a renowned yet often misunderstood torchbearer for what was then known as free jazz, or simply the New Thing.
But Pharoah has also been filed under "spiritual jazz," a label that better describes what's heard on these albums. The epic tunes are essentially quests, with any number of peaks and valleys along the way. In that sense, Pharoah's music on these albums can be seen as an extension of John Coltrane's seminal spiritual odyssey A Love Supreme, but with more musicians, more movements and more freedom.
The 28-minute "Sun in Aquarius," originally split into two parts on the '69 release of Jewels of Thought, tells a fairly typical Pharoah story. The track begins simply, with dense, lively percussion and Pharoah making his presence known on a car-horn–like wind instrument. Next comes a stark, foreboding piano recital from Lonnie Liston Smith. Then, around eight minutes in, Pharoah returns on tenor, screaming bloody murder in the upper register of his horn. The tune also features serene waltz passages; a warm, singing duet between the group's two acoustic bassists, Richard Davis and Cecil McBee; and a full-band explosion of noise. Despite its marathon running time, the piece feels gripping and action-packed.
Other memorable moments on these albums range from the ecstatic to the meditative. On the Tauhid track "Aum/Venus/Capricorn Rising," guitarist Sonny Sharrock plays an electrifying raw nerve of a solo over the frenzied din of pianist Dave Burrell, bassist Henry Grimes, drummer Roger Blank, and percussionist Nat Bettis. Leon Thomas' chants for peace on the Jewels of Thought gem "Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah" – "Peace is the will of the people and the will of the land" – feel like a stirring call to arms. And the gorgeous "Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord," off Deaf Dumb Blind, never quite settles into a concrete groove, instead basking in exquisite tension. But in the two hours of music presented here, the highest points belong to the boss. Sanders' gloriously unhinged sax playing, and overall broadness of vision, inspire constant wonder.
Terms like "spiritual jazz" and "cosmic jazz" get thrown around lightly today, but there should be no confusion about where this rich aesthetic originated; any contemporary artist aspiring to make this sort of music is building directly on the foundations laid by the Coltranes, Sun Ra and Sanders. These fresh editions of Tauhid, Jewels of Thought, and Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun) serve as reminders of how Pharoah originally earned his status as a larger-than-life icon, whose impact stretches far beyond jazz. And maybe beyond music itself.