A Fireside Chat With Pharoah Sanders

AAJ Staff By

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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?


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