A Fireside Chat With Pharoah Sanders
“ I just want a band and keep them working, people that I like and who I think a lot of. Once my band is happy, then I am happy. ”
As a preface, I have been a devotee of Pharoah Sanders (Ferrell Sanders) since I first heard the now legendary John Coltrane recording, Meditations. From Meditations, I came to the storied Ascension session and that furthered my interest to Live in Japan (includes an almost hour long version of "My Favorite Things"), for my two cents, the most unappreciated and critically misunderstood album in Trane's discography. That spawned my purchase of Sanders' Karma, which gave way to Black Unity. For a period, Sanders was on Verve and recorded two sessions produced by the often-maligned Bill Laswell, Message from Home and Save Our Children. Kora superhero Foday Musa Suso appears on Message from Home and Save Our Children still makes its way into my CD player. That was a handful of years ago and apart from a featured guest role here and a Catalina's concert there (although Sanders did record Spirits for Adam Rudolph's label), Sanders remained silent, out of the public eye, and more importantly, out of the public ear. Void of a recording contract and having just played a mediocre week at Catalina's, Sanders spoke about his absence and the pitfalls of falling in the cracks of the preverbal American pop culture mantra, as always, brought to you without commercial interruptions, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: How is your health?
Pharoah Sanders: I feel OK. I'm trying to keep up, keep my health together. So far, I've had no problems.
FJ: I ask because when I saw you last week at Catalina's, you did a good imitation of Miles Davis circa We Want Miles (1981), when much of the playing was done by his band.
PS: That was maybe this week, but I had problems, my own reasons. I am using another drummer. I am trying to check him out. I am trying to check everybody out. I am trying to see if that is the kind of thing that I really want to do. The drummer, that is the first time that I have ever worked with him. He is a drummer that Billy Higgins really spent a lot of time with. He has been playing since he was about two or three years old, since he was a little baby. I thought I would try and use him. I usually use Ralph Penland when I work down there. I just wanted to try out somebody different. I am interested in doing some things with some bigger companies, but nobody has really approached me. Verve had approached me, but when they started laying off people.
FJ: This was pre-Tommy LiPuma.
PS: Oh, yeah. He don't want to have anything to do with me. He said that somebody said that I don't like white people or something. I heard that and I couldn't believe that. I don't know if somebody is trying to do something to me. I don't know what it is. There is a lot of lies going around.
FJ: Whoa, what kind of horseshit is that?
PS: I think somebody was trying to get a record session, a record date and they had been playing for a number of years, a tenor player, and he called me and told me that. I think the person at Verve now used to be with GRP or something, but they send me things. He was very cool and nice to me and we were talking about doing something. Later on, Verve, Polygram, they were changing over and before he got in there, I was supposed to be signing with Verve, a big contract, and never did happen because they changed all the personnel. He felt like my music wouldn't go over. I guess I played different stuff and it was not consistent as jazz or whatever. I don't know if that was the problem or not and then I heard this and somebody said that he said that he heard that I didn't like white people. That made me feel so bad that I didn't feel like doing nothing for a long time. Then I decided that maybe I should try to do something on my own and then go to the big company. That might be where it is at.
FJ: Are you being passed over because you don't fit the mold? You are admittedly reticent and in this age of hype and promos, you are not doing yourself any favors.
PS: Their whole image or how they feel right now, because there are some different kind of people up there now, that is why I would rather do my own thing because I know what I want to do and I can do a little by little until I get it to where I want it to be and then I will go to them and if not, I will just sell it myself, little by little.
FJ: Ironic, since Impulse!, a Verve label, was built on the sessions you did with Coltrane and you own bands.
PS: At that time, when I was making those albums, I was trying to do both kinds of things, play in and out. I was working a little bit with John Coltrane and at the same time, I always had my own band at the same time. I was trying to work both bands and try to figure out what I wanted to do. It kept me moving, but right now, I feel like I want to do some other things, things that I haven't done like I haven't made an album with all blues. There is a whole lot of things that I want to do. I am not going to wait until a company calls me to do them. I will just go ahead and do it and then deal with the big guys later.
FJ: Just a few years ago, you gave equal time to the soprano saxophone and the tenor. I noticed lately, the soprano saxophone has disappeared from your sessions.
PS: Well, I have had my problems with the soprano. I always felt that I didn't have a good sound on my soprano and I was waiting, trying to find a righteous mouthpiece that I could play that I really like. It was a problem for me, playing soprano and then switching to tenor. Most of the time, you find me playing soprano on albums and things and not in person. So I had problems taking my instruments on the plane. I got tired of them hassling me and so I stopped bringing my soprano. I just bring my tenor. But now, I am thinking that maybe I should bring all of them. I just need to get a case made for them to go underneath because the plane gets full, it doesn't matter once you are on the plane. It is not their fault. I just have to do something about it and I don't like to make problems for me. I just need to find somebody to make me a case that I can put up underneath. I just haven't got around to it. That is all that is. I just haven't got around to getting somebody to make me a metal case or something.
FJ: You have received your share of Coltrane questions.
PS: They always do. A lot of times, they don't know that we talked just like anybody else. We'd ask how we were doing. It wasn't no big thing. There wasn't anything concerning about the music. It was just general conversation. He treated me just the way he treated anybody. I didn't talk that much and John, he didn't talk that much.
FJ: I would have liked to be a fly on the wall for that conversation, or lack there of.
PS: (Laughing) I would sit right next to him and not say a word and wouldn't think about saying nothing and he would sit and never say anything either. He was just one of those kind of people. He is very, very quite. It seemed like when he picked up his horn, it was a whole different story then. Then I would listen (laughing). I would definitely listen. I remember one time, he gave me a rhythm thing to practice on and that was really helpful to me. That was really telling me something, rather than just what he had written down. The rhythm he gave me was something that we were musically involved with and something he wanted me to do. When he gave it to me, he just gave it to me. He didn't say nothing. He would just do things. He never said nothing or explained nothing. He just would do it and that was it. You were on your own. You had to be very independent being around John. Then I started buying drumsticks and started working on my rhythm a little bit more. Maybe he saw something in me and thought that I should practice my rhythm instead of running around with my horn. That is how I looked at it. Maybe he was trying to tell me something and I better go and practice on my rhythm (laughing).
FJ: Have you lost the fire and brimstone in your playing from those days?
PS: I don't know. Sometimes, things get very unseen to the public. You might see me working with the band right now, but I am working with this band right now because I had to break up another band that I was with because of personal problems. You just can't have that when you are playing. You have to have guys that are straight. I may have lost a lot by looking at it that way. Before, I think I had like John Hicks and Idris (Muhammad) and some personal problem happened that don't have anything to do with no music. I said that I was tired of it now and I have to find somebody that is going to do it now and be on time for the gigs and don't give me any problems. I don't want nobody on my gig drunk or doing some other drugs or whatever it may be. I've been knowing William Henderson for a long time, since 1959. I knew William before I met John Hicks. I met William in Oakland, California. He is a very clean person, vegetarian and all. I can really use that around me. I find that in California, I can't find guys that have enough energy. They play a little bit and that's about it. They play less. If I start a tune and then the pianist has to solo, I am looking to everybody to get to a certain climate and then I come back in while the energy is up high. Somehow that doesn't happen.
Since I have been working with these guys, it never has happened, so I guess guys like to play their little solo and that is it and then the next guy plays his solo and that is it. In New York, by me living there so long, guys are into more energy. We play much longer and that makes me want to play longer. If you build the intensity up to where I can come in on that energy, that is what I want. Then you would see me playing for a long time. If I have to do it all by myself, then it is not working right. I look at it that the whole band is like one big solo. I like to build. If nobody is building with me, then there is no sense in me trying to play because that is not creative. You never get a lot of creativity out of me because I am not pushed to do it. Nobody is looking at the energy. They are all looking at the piece of music and this guy is soloing and they already have it all figured out. I could play the whole set by myself and I am giving them a chance to play and be heard and they don't take advantage of that and do something with it, then it is not going anywhere. That is why I am not getting enough work because I would like to work all the time. Nobody really calls me. Ever since I have been playing, I never worked every month. I will work this month and then I am off two months. That is the way it has been going. I don't know why, but I guess that is just the way it is.
FJ: How do you survive?
PS: I've been getting publishing royalties and stuff like that. I have just been lucky. They come in at the right time. Sometimes they don't, but I am not wealthy or anything like that. I just love to work. I would rather work three hundred and something days out of the year. I would rather be working. They don't know. I love playing. Then I can really get my music together. If I don't do that, then my chops go down and stuff goes down. If I can get some good musicians together and have a good rhythm section, I can keep them working.
I have a lot of problems out in California trying to find drummers and bass players. The bass players, they don't create. A lot of them I know, they just play a little solo. I am not so used to that kind of playing. Drummers can't play on time. Their time is bad. I just don't know what to do. Then when I go to New York City, I find some good drummers or good bass players to work with. I miss New York period and the musicians. Everybody around here is very casual and very social, but no energy. I want somebody to come to the gig and they are ready to hit. They are ready to play. Let's go and hit. Energy and then would play one tune for the whole set. Music can get involved where energy takes you to different places. You know that too. If I don't go there, I don't really feel like I have given the people enough. I am not a person who can get on the bandstand and play a million tunes for a set. I want to play as long as I have my horn, a long, long time, where one tune could be for the whole set. A lot of times, after a piano solo, the bassist thinks he should solo and I feel like the drummer should solo and the bass take the solo after the drummer and the bass can solo and he can take us in another direction.
I remember a bassist that I used and he was always like this. He would take the band different places and he is doing some other things and that is Stanley Clarke. He always played and his energy would be so high that when he played his solo, he would go on and do what he wanted to do and then he would start something else. We would play one tune and after his solo, we would do some other thing. It keeps on moving and I never got tired of that. I wish I could get that back again. It is hard to try and tell a bassist to play a little longer or get into some other rhythms or different times or something. Make me do something.
FJ: Would life have been better for Pharoah Sanders if you remained in New York?
PS: Well, I lived in New York in the Nineties. Well, if I went on and signed a contract when they asked me to and I waited about a whole year before I even thought about signing a contract. I should have went on and signed it then before the new owner. That is my fault. The record companies don't know you. They know of you, but they are more into pop. I don't know. I think right now, I would rather do my own thing. I can go ahead and finish it and then put it out there. If one company is not interested, I can move on to another. I would like to make a record with straight ahead things, some things that I wanted to do for a long time. It would not be commercial. There would be some things that I felt I hadn't finished from a long time ago. It is just a matter of finding the right musicians. Most of the time, when you find the right musicians, they are working with somebody else or they are very expensive to use and I can't afford to use them. It bothers me. I remember when some of the musicians weren't making a lot of money and now they are very, very popular and well known. I don't know how I can use them anymore. I do the best I can. A lot of the agencies don't get good paying jobs so I have to make things work some kind of way. I would rather work in Europe. It is better money. What I have been getting now is people want to use me in different bands. They want to use me as a guest. I would rather use my own band. The money is OK, but I don't want to make a whole lot of money. I just want a band and keep them working, people that I like and who I think a lot of. Once my band is happy, then I am happy.
FJ: And the future?
PS: Just a while ago, just a few months ago, I got a call to work in the Jazz Bakery. I am looking at October to go in there for the first time. I want to get a bassist from back in New York and a drummer. That is going to be costly, so maybe I can get a bassist.
FJ: Call Roberto Miranda.
PS: I have never heard of him.
FJ: Roberto has the vocabulary of Mingus and the get up of Henry Grimes.
PS: See, it is funny, the guys from here that I work with, they don't tell me about nobody around here. Nobody tells me what is going on around here. I don't go out unless I am working. A few guys tell me to check this guy out and he ends up being a bassist that somebody else is close to everyday and that is their buddy and I don't like dealing with stuff like that. I have problems with stuff like that. I want the best there is around here.
FJ: Roberto is the best in LA.
PS: I definitely want his number. He has that kind of energy. I like that. That makes me feel good. It is not about them coming in to make money. I would just love to find somebody who really wants to play. Give me some inspiration. Let's play. Let's go and hit. If he wants to, he can pick up his bass and come to the frontline. He don't have to be in the background. I just need more energy. I want cats that play with me to have multiple talents. I can deal with it and go in all kinds of different directions. If I can't find them here, I am going to send for somebody. I have to keep going. I have to.