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Griots On The Underground Railroad - Pharoah Sanders And Wayne Shorter

By Published: October 25, 2003

Great musicians

The music of story and song has no perceptual beginning – and it will have no end. Not, that is, until the seemingly unending tribe of musical artists give up the ghost. From the first raw cry of the human voice discovered to myriad epiphanies of ingenious vocalistics and instrumentalism, the language of music is a seamless part of human history.

All music traverses the spectrum of sound inhabited between the wail of pain and shout of joy, singing, ultimately of the triumph of life and the silent communion with its Creator, who blesses the generations chosen to sing this triumph of life. Men and women blest with this gift may practice their chops endlessly – virtually from birth to death – until the instrument becomes the musician and the musician becomes the song.

Great musicians... A breed apart. Chosen. Driven. When you listen to ‘their call’; when you hear them raise the Spirit in the art of music there is no denying their song of songs. Musicians, as Charles Mingus discovered, were vessels of the greater calling of God. Thus their compositions - of sounds and intervals, written, or suggested, sketched and colored, with a multiplicity of textured harmony and complex and tempi, are all created by divine intervention, if only to celebrate the pain and joy of human endeavor. All else is rigorous practice until the perfection of technique becomes fused into the composition. Until the instrument becomes the musician’s own voice and the echo of every moan and groan. And every apocalyptic shout of joy.

Music was once simple and might have always been this way had man not learned that there were those who were different. Babel struck and we awoke, after centuries of migrations, there to find that some were white and others black and brown and yellow. The strong snuffed out the weak. ‘It was by the sun’, no less! We heard it sung in the Song of Songs. But few believed, yet we knew that what we thought radically different to look at and hear was beautiful too! Even though we did not see it in each other. The paradigm, of course, is: Were we inside these ghettos, looking out, or outside looking in? No matter, we still were brothers and sisters. Bound by disaffection, we invented a new language to express our joy at being in pain, blest with the ability to find joy in the muck of negritude. And the black and blues begat jazz!

Meanwhile ghettoism became the global norm as the proud tribe of black and brown and yellow struggled onwards. And even though men like Dr. King – and Gandhi before him – had that dream of rising up and being free this would never be, except – as it turned out – constitutionally. But in a retrograde world, servitude lives on insidiously. Which is why the Underground Railroad – the Soul Train – is born again. Perhaps it never really died or faded away! And, wonder of wonders, its riders are of every hue. Yes, black, brown – and white too! Modern civilization has swelled the ranks of the dispossessed. And the Underground Railroad continues to run, of necessity, even today. It was ghostly, invisible then, but as it carries it’s dispossessed forward to a higher ground today, we hear its song. It is born of the same primeval rhythm that first woke us up in the Great Rift Valley; of blue psalms enjoined in the cry of freedom. Ah... Jazz!

So, who else, but the artist-musician can keep us alive on our journey to liberation? This urban griot – the artist-musician – who sings our sorrows away, only to be supplanted with the joy of man’s desire? Dispossessed, yet full of hope, as they send the soul soaring. They have never been patronized as the artist-musicians of the renaissance Europe were. Mostly exploited and uselessly categorized, they are. Rarely understood and much less appreciated except by those who know and believe. Their souls shine like celestial spotlights above our civilization. There are elders, who set the first stories of our lives to song: Duke, Bird, Mingus, Monk and ‘Trane... They riveted us all - travelers on the Soul Train - with beautiful stories in song, in praise of human endeavor, then colored them with a palette rich in spiritualism with voices soaring as they lead us on this inevitable journey. With their muted wails and apocalyptic shouts, heard around the world, they unwittingly began to change the world – at least that small world that drew us in with its sensuous rhythm!

We continue to listen as the musical descendents of Duke and Bird, Mingus, Monk and ‘Trane continue to revolutionize the art of music, sometimes playful, sometimes serious... sometimes with elemental sadness and almost always with deep spiritualism that never fails to raise body and soul in a dance of joy!

So, sad though it be that the journey we make each day remains the same, how fortunate that Duke and Bird, Mingus, Monk and ‘Trane begat, two of today’s most enduring musician-griots: Pharoah Sanders and Wayne Shorter. Although they approach their art from dramatically different ends of music, they appear to form, not only a direct line from the blue musical genealogy of their ancestors they lie at almost opposite ends of the line, this Soul Train that takes us forward. Sanders – almost alone in his deeply spiritual approach, appears in complete communion with our ancestors as his music lights up our ‘journey to the one’. And Shorter, almost alone in his ability to experience life from every aspect of his being – his music is so simple; cerebral, tonal, yet tactile, as he speaks of a life happening to the life unborn!

Both Pharoah Sanders and Wayne Shorter are at the height of their powers - both standing in the future and looking back as they perform their art with song and story intertwined!

In a luminous career that was ignited by the legendary association with John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders came very quickly into his own after the tragic death of Coltrane. In fact his is perhaps the straightest line from Coltrane’s work of the final years. Approaching life from a similar point of view, Sanders took the spiritualism of ‘Trane and made it his own. Where ‘Trane meditated on the oneness of being, Sanders extrapolated, and made all civilization his palette, discovering the oneness of all being and its relationship with the earth itself. Naturally this took him to Africa, where it all began. His revelatory oeuvre is as spiritually deep as it is dazzling! Always at the top of his game, Sanders is a timeless musician at one with the ancient tones – whether he is playing the blues, or laying out the music in a carpet of sound. Sanders transcends all methods of being which makes him so completely in tune with the earth that he absorbs its ancient celestial rhythms and, by exploring the myriad tonalities of his beautiful tenor horn, he creates a music that gushes into our senses like the tumbling, unfettered sea, conjuring up fractal images and memories, blue moods and flashing seraphic visions of life. With joyful spirit and profundity of knowledge driving his art, Pharoah Sanders moves like a man in perfect communion with God. His music, in turn, moves in and out and through him. I get the feeling that every time he breathes, the air in his lungs swirls with every structure and concept of musical art. It sweeps up the history of ages, the magic of life and the religion that binds whole civilizations. His voice is the voice of many – from Africa, to India and Japan, yet it remains so completely his own in the interpretation of the many worlds that his heart and soul has traversed! You hear this on a series of recordings Sanders made for Impulse – Jewels of Thought, Black Unity, Tauhid, Karma and Thembi – and in Journey to the One but most spectacularly in his almost supernatural collaboration with the Gnawa musicians of Morocco in the Bill Laswell production – The Trance of the Seven Colors and in Letter from Home also produced by Laswell.

The Gnawa collaboration is, perhaps, the most perfect showcase of Sanders’ otherworldly talent to create a story of his own for a tradition of spiritual healing that came hundreds of years before his time. Joining Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, the Moroccan guimbri player, spiritualist and griot, Sanders comes into his own from the opening bars played with spectacular tonality on his horn. The purity of his sound and the deep conviction of his intent to be one – he is one! – so completely Pharoah, allows him to offer seamless melodies into the Gnawa ritual context. And the Gnawa musicians, for their part, embrace Sanders’ sound and vision as if it were just another part of their history. On Letter from Home, a more recent Laswell outing Sanders does much the same with Hamid Drake, Aiyb Dieng and Foday Musa Suso, as he reminds us that ‘Our Roots Began in Africa’ and even before that, we heard the music in our heads while we inhabited the sea (‘Ocean Song’). ‘Kumba’ – features a dialogue with Musa Suso, in much the same vein as it did on the Gnawa project. And if you think that Sanders has abandoned the blues and gone Afro centric, you only have to go back to his legendary collaboration with Sonny Sharrock – Ask the Ages, (Prod: Laswell) – where we traverse the timeline of where the blues began, where it developed through delta and plain and where it has traveled, to its astral incarnation.

I mention but a few of my favorite Sanders musical projects, merely in a humble attempt to illustrate the art of Pharoah Sanders, urban griot who reminds us time and time again, that we, like him came from Africa, where all life began. Through him flows the immensity and complexity of life – its sorrows and joys, the beautiful and the ugly – as we ultimately move inexorably through the trance of a myriad colors and textures of human existence. Inevitably I become a better person after each musical encounter with Pharoah Sanders – for I am swept up by the beauty and hope of his music. And my soul is elevated. It soars as I get up and dance, unabashedly. With intimations of journey’s end, my spirit is already set free!

And so it is too with a musical expedition to the heart of Wayne Shorter! If Sanders is the earth poet, the sagacious, terrestrial griot, then Shorter is the celestial, spirit child agape at the immensity of the world, inhabiting the beautiful, blurred lines where legend and history, myth and reality meet. And they meet in Joycean cascades melded into a voice so completely his own.

In Wayne Shorter the art of the story and song become inextricably entwined like the languorous embrace of lovers on a midnight bed, softly playing out a night of elaborate love-making. But if Shorter can be tactile, sensuous and emotive, he can also be cerebral and thought-provoking as he blazes – with his dramatic compositions, featuring a truly innovative approach to harmonic changes – developing ever new ways of perceiving the Universe with all its human folly in relation to the benevolence of its Creator. It is almost as if Wayne Shorter inhabits the realm of apocalyptic visions, and both man and the Burning Bush as well.

Shorter gave notice of his rare genius in a series of recordings he made for Alfred Lion at Blue note in the early 60s. Four classic albums – Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil and The All Seeing Eye – were followed by The Soothsayer and Etcetera. Shorter played tenor saxophone exclusively then and this suited his vision of a grim uncertain world. Technically, on these albums, modal and free improvising appeared to be merging, with rhythmic continuity loosened up without totally abandoning familiar notions of swing. But, for me, the most striking and enduring quality of the music here is its mystic quality. Shorter is perhaps the only other musician – since ’Trane – to possess such a unique inquisitiveness and focus, so as to contemplate and address such infinite subjects as these.

The visionary in Wayne Shorter really took flight in The All Seeing Eye, a masterful contemplation of God pondering his creation. This album reaches for the central mystery of the unfathomable relationship of the Creator’s and the earth. The suite of music bears comparison with ‘Trane’s A Love Supreme and Meditations. But The All Seeing Eye goes even further. Shorter has melded the mystical with the metaphysical superbly. In this respect, Shorter’s composition takes ‘Trane’s meditative musical concepts much further into the realm of (almost) theological questioning. Note the mystery of an infinite, yet ever present being – in ‘The Face of the Deep’ and the sinister face of evil, lurking in the form of ‘Mephistopheles’. Yet the music is eminently accessible, with a delightfully swinging quality and the message is ultimately triumphant. This series of records became the springboard for the next phase of Shorter’s contribution to music – both as a composer and, now as a soprano saxophonist.

And he did more than that... It was Wayne Shorter who contributed to the turning point in Miles Davis’ career as it turned the bend from the 60s to the 70s. His rare genius prompted Davis to say: “Wayne also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with a musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your satisfaction and taste. Wayne was always out there on his own plane, orbiting around his own planet. Everybody else in the band (the first great quintet of the 60s) was walking down here on earth... That’s why I say he was the intellectual musical catalyst for the band in his arrangement of his musical compositions that we recorded.”

Small wonder, then, that Shorter should have become – at least for the first half of its existence – the catalyst for another great band that roared into the era of the 70s: Weather Report. Even when the band no longer benefited by his astounding compositions (such as those on Heavy Weather, Sweetnighter, Mysterious Traveler and I Sing The Body Electric ), Shorter – master of the soprano saxophone – remained very much the band’s other catalyst and there was no mistaking his ability to tell a story, when he interpreted Zawinul’s and Pastorius’ compositions. I recall a particularly brilliant musical excursion on an improvised piece played on Weather Report’s celebrated tour of Japan. The almost symbiotic relationship with Zawinul as they traded thoughts and concepts telepathically, creating one of the most remarkable musical adventures. You feel the same sense of wonderful symbiosis on other musician’s records that Wayne Shorter graces. The most remarkable ones being Joni Mitchell’s many sessions.

Happily, after Weather Report, Wayne Shorter has returned to leading his own groups again. Although Atlantis, the first new Shorter expedition provided a taste of things to come, it was the duet album 1+1 with old friend, Herbie Hancock that heralded Shorter’s return to the Soul Train!

His three compositions – ‘Meridianne – A Wood Sylph’, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ and ‘Diana’ – are sublime musical adventures. While others may write musical sketches, Shorter brings history and legend, pathos and triumph into this music. I believe that ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ is one of the most spectacular stories of human triumph. The tragedy of Suu Kyi’s life of relative silence under the repressive regime of the Myanmar Junta is spectacularly captured with the kind of bard-like sensibility as only Shorter could do. The composition captures the physical hardship and mental cruelty of freedom lost. In the ultimate triumph of the breakthrough of the irrepressible human spirit Shorter has described what why we must rejoice for our freedom and the inability to repress the truth of freedom in the raising of the spirit. This work recalls the masterly manifestoes of Patrice Lumumba, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Leopold Sedar Senghor in their seminal works dedicated to ‘negritude’ and the rise of Africanization from colonial rule. This is why Shorter is, for me, one of the most significant musicians of our day. And this is why I always wait, with childlike excitement and expectation, every new work; even if he is revisiting – to refresh himself and us – early compositions, such as Footprints (both, the composition and the album).

His latest record, Alegria literally leaps out at you. Conceptually it is in a similar vein to 1+1, but using larger groups, Shorter now creates work for a bigger canvas. His opening track, ‘Sacajawea’ transports us to another world of courage and freedom with an interpretation of the life of the heroic Shoshone, ‘Bird Woman’ who was sold in slavery to a French-Canadian trader, freed and redeemed herself by finally being asked to join the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1804 and 1805. ‘Veindiendo Alegrias’ and ‘Bachianas Brasilerias No.5’ pay rich tribute to the rich heritage of Brasil, with triumphant interpretations of that countries edifying music. ‘Angola’ tells of the African country’s rising from the shackles of colonial rule with a spectacular melding of rhythmic intensity with circular narrative. In this densely textured album, Wayne Shorter has led a new expedition through time. And he has made our own, adventure through life that much more edifying and memorable yet again. Like the heroes he sings, I too am reborn!

To my mind, both Wayne Shorter and the venerable Pharoah Sanders will always be today’s living griots, carrying on a tradition of artful storytelling that reminds us not just of the values of love and human courage – even in the most abject circumstances – but ultimately just how glorious life is meant to be. And in doing so we remember how timeless their art – this art of music – really is.

Photo Credit
Wayne Shorter by Jimmy Katz

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