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Pharoah Sanders Plays with Fire

Rex  Butters By

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Lovingly touring jazz history whenever he plays, Sanders swings from channeling Coleman Hawkins to creating the future within measures.
As wildfires raged around LA, the Pharoah Sanders Vocal Quartet incinerated the Jazz Bakery. The legendary tenor player brought heat from most of his distinguished career. Lovingly touring jazz history whenever he plays, Sanders swings from channeling Coleman Hawkins to creating the future within measures. Members of his touring unit accompanied Sanders, as well as LA mainstay Roberto Miranda on bass. Miranda’s streaming imagination and athletic technique bring out the best in whatever group he participates. Longtime associate William Henderson played piano. Henderson’s performed and recorded with Sanders for more than a decade, fans will remember him from the Verve recordings. Apart from their rapport, Henderson’s flowing inventions and grace within technically tough soloing situations made him a compelling performer. Drummer Kharon Harrison counts Billy Higgins, Ndugu Chancellor and Stevie Wonder as mentors. With LA vocalist Dwight Tribble added to the mix, an extra dimension of soul/gospel/joy manifested in the music.

Sleek in a black suit with deep purple shirt, Sanders played a duet intro with Henderson that grew into Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” Tribble’s soaring baritone came in with the band. Any room in which he sings becomes a church. Although powerfully straightforward and soulful, Sanders ended piece with effective multiphonics. They followed with a straight-ahead piece that showed off Sanders’ rich toned expressive style. He built his elegant solos on multiphonic root notes. With the rhythm section working the heat, Henderson swept through with a flurry of fingers. Keeping time and then some Miranda demonstrated why he’s a treasure.

What seemed like a promising start blossomed with the Henderson and Miranda playing the bass line from “A Love Supreme.” Tribble sang an affecting intro (his own lyrics?), and Pharoah unleashed a torrent of classic Pharoahisms from the harsh to the sublime. His extended solo built a city of sonic edifices. Henderson followed whipping small complex storms on the keyboard. Miranda solo referenced the familiar bass line between intense flights of improvisation. Harrison started with playful variations and exploded into an avalanche of beats. The band returned with Tribble testifying and Sanders just offstage shouting him on and answering his cries.

After an impassioned finale, where could they go but a ballad? Sanders introduced “Midnight in Berkeley Square,” a tune recorded on Save the Children. Tribble emoted vocally, and Henderson ambled through easily. Harrison dusted with brushes, and Miranda bowed the bass and the heartstrings. Sanders returned to open a catalogue of variations. Although the evening had developed a palpable magic by this point, Sanders’ exuberance took it higher with “Freedom.” He opened with joyful shrieks, and continued with stratospheric tones, dancing between turns. Dense r&b inspired wails gave way to call and response vocals with Tribble, bringing the audience to their feet.

After a brief intermission, the band returned for another straight-ahead romp. Pharoah’s solo moved briskly through inventions, while Henderson’s drove the rhythm section through the scenic route. “Body and Soul” received a thoughtful reading from Tribble who also sang scat improvisations. Sanders treated the chestnut to rough tones and long silky lines. A sprightly mid-tempo Caribbean flavored number found Sanders dancing again, employing circular breathing, and tonelessly playing the saxophone keys as percussion. Finally, “The Creator Has A Master Plan” took the band out on a gentle groove. Tribble delivered the inspired lyrics and Pharoah capped it with arpeggios that create the Sanders shimmer.

It was a remarkable night for a remarkable talent. Sanders enthusiastically reasserted his position as one of the world’s master instrumentalists with a band fully in on the mission.

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