Pharoah Sanders :: Pharoah (Box Set)

Everything about Pharoah Sanders’ eponymous 1977 album is a gift. It’s a masterpiece of quiet mystique and joy that almost never was. Despite the fact that the maestro himself was never satisfied with the album and rarely spoke about it, Pharaoh took on a life of its own over the next four decades to become one of Sanders’ most hallowed and revered recordings. Now available for the first time since its original release, Pharaoh has been rejuvenated with the splendor a monumental box set from Luaka Bop. It’s a tremendous archival achievement that casts new light on a crucial point of transition for Sanders, going above and beyond with a veritable trove of liner notes, photos and ephemera, and two previously unheard versions of Pharoah’s meditative opus, “Harvest Time.”

By the mid 70s Pharaoh Sanders had become a jazz institution, the apostolic bearer of the torch passed from his late mentor and bandmate, John Coltrane. He’d spent the previous decade forging the template for spiritual jazz with a legendary run of masterpieces for Impulse, the beauty and intensity of which remains unrivaled. Looking for a new direction after leaving Impulse, Sanders accepted an invitation to record for India Navigation, a small NYC loft-jazz label run by daytime lawyer and jazz enthusiast Bob Cumins. After an ill-fated first session left Sanders disappointed and frustrated, Cumins smoothed things over enough for a second attempt in the late summer of 1976. The result was Pharoah.

Recorded in the spring water refinery Cumins converted into a makeshift studio, Pharoah was a one-off,  the sole session by a configuration of players that Sanders would never record with again. Among these was Sanders’ wife at the time, Bedria, a classically trained pianist and harpist whose presence and influence are central to “Harvest Time,” the record’s ethereal opening cut, and one of the most beautiful offerings Pharoah Sanders ever laid to tape. 

Steeped in spectral ambience and devotional humility, “Harvest Time” is a hymn to renewal. It’s a remarkable piece that finds Sanders playing with a subtlety and minimalism he’d always hinted at, but never inhabited quite as fully. Gone are the fiery sheets of sound synonymous with the Impulse years, in favor of something much more vulnerable––a newfound serenity that welcomes listeners into aural temple of tone, melody, and grace. 

The recorded version of “Harvest Time” begins humbly enough, fading into Tisziji Muñoz’s gentle guitar vamp, which shimmers around Steve Neil’s bass ostinato before the first notes of sax waft in like a low breeze. Sax and bass trade leads as time becomes ever more fluid, and faint chimes draw things to a lull about halfway through. It’s a natural progression, like the light shifting as the sun trances its arch across the sky, before the diaphanous drone of Bedria Sanders’ harmonium—an instrument she’d never touched before the session—settles into the piece like a thin mist. 

At this point the music becomes something else, illuminating something greater than sound—a presence. A hush extends over the proceedings and for the rest of “Harvest Time” Sanders and company don’t really play anything so much as they tend to the sound they’ve encountered in the depths of an ephemeral frequency. Then they simply let the piece drift on and diminish into its own silence, guiding it back into the ether by the sound of Pharoah’s bare breath.

On the other hand, “Love Will Find A Way” is pure raucous jubilation, gracing listeners with Pharoah’s first (and only) vocal performance––a soulful declaration of love, faith, and devotion inspired by Bedria. But he’s quick to take up the horn again, blowing the message ecstatically onward to the highest heights. The song was also Sanders’ conscious effort to lean toward the rock and fusion stylings of the day, a deliberate attempt at a more commercially accessible sound. Enter Muñoz, whose soaring guitar leads divine the sweet spot between Sonny Sharrock and Carlos Santana, furthering the entire course of ascent.

The album’s finale, “Memories of Edith Johnson,” is a gospel-tinged ode to Sanders’ aunt built around an organ refrain (courtesy of future Sugar Hill producer/arranger Cliftin “Jiggs” Chase). Wordless vocals weave a chorus as Pharoah wanders through the piece trailing brief bursts of sweet, reverent melody. Though it’s the shortest piece on the  album, it’s a glowing tribute and a joyous offering that draws things to a close with as much ceremony as they began.

The Pharoah box set also unearths two previously unheard performances of “Harvest Time, ” recorded at jazz festivals in Middleheim (Belgium) and Willisau (Switzerland) during a European tour in the summer of 1977. These recordings are worth the price of admission alone. These performances capture Pharoah exploring the possibilities of “Harvest Time” even further, backed an entirely new compliment of piano, bass, and drums, 

The Middleheim performance is modal bliss, a play of light and shadow as a mellow Pharoah gives the band plenty of space to work, while bassist and Arkestra alum Hayes Burnett lends a subtle elasticity to the underlying groove. On the other hand, the Willisau recording absolutely cooks, this time with Pharaoh out front letting off some residual cosmic heat. He drives the band into realms of unfettered spiritual fire before everything fades, leaving Pharoah alone, his horn rippling out into the beyond before the stunned silence of the audience. Though a comparatively brief cut, the Willisau “Harvest Time” is a glorious summation of Sanders’ music up to that point, graciously preserved in the splendor of the Pharoah box set. 

It’s rare to hear the universe at work, and rarer still to get it on tape. With Luaka Bop’s box set, time and circumstance have once again aligned to reveal the transcendent cosmic magnitude of Pharoah. Absolutely essential in every way. | j annis

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