UPDATES September 11, photos Leon Thomas and Roy Haynes from Harry M, to Harrys Place; Melody Maker June 1980 full page interview with Pharoah, to Appendix.
Enough of British Jazz for the moment, back to The USA, and one of the most venerated players, Pharaoh Sanders. Word count 2,606, reading time 9 minutes, lot of ground to cover, more than just this LP.
Selection: Hum Allah, hum Allah, hum hum (13:09)
. . .
Pharoah Sanders, tenor sax, contrabass clarinet, reed flute, African thumb piano, orchestra chimes; Lonnie Liston Smith, piano, African flute, African thumb piano; on Hum Allah: Idris Muhammad drums left, Roy Haynes drums right; on Sun In Aquarius: Richard Davis, left channel bass; Cecil McBee, right channel; Idris Muhammad, drums: Leon Thomas, vocals; all, percussion; recorded at Plaza Sound Studios, NYC, October 20, 1969, engineer George Sawtelle.
AS-9190 Jewels Of Thought is typical of the Impulse catalogue at the end of the Sixties, The subsequent Impulse title, AS-9191, Albert Ayler – Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe taps into the same aesthetic. Jewels Of Thought was recorded about six months after Karma (Creator has a Masterplan) and shares the same vibe.
Leon Thomas contributes his trademark “holy-warbling”, and offers an opportunity to bring about world peace by clapping hands, 1-2-3. Remarkably, no-one seems to have thought of this solution to world conflict before. It is comforting to know we have done our bit for world peace by clapping hands, and can go home with a clear conscience, knowing we are in favour of Peace. Anyway, if clapping doesn’t work, we can always “Give War A Chance“.
Hum-Allah, Hum Allah, Hum Allah Hum – a simple repetitive motif, a two chord vamp, supported by two drummers, Roy Haynes and Idris Muhammad, one on each channel. The vamp builds slowly towards an ecstatic sound-storm, tumultuous, Pharoah’s saxophone shrieking, gasping for air, cathartic release, after which it is a relief to get back to a little grooving and clapping, 1, 2, 3.
Leon’s yodelling is tolerable, Hum-Allah, yoe yoe Hum Allah, yoe yoe, Prince of Peace, yoe yoe. Tolerable, said without enthusiasm, but Leon goes with the territory, Pharoah wanted him on board.
The Sun In Aquarius occupies the rest of the album, twenty seven minutes spread across two sides, and brings in two bass players, Cecil McBee and Richard Davis, one on each channel. The opening conjures up an exotic mythical space, light and colour, with bells, orchestral chimes, reed flutes, brushed piano wires and cabinet reverb, thumb piano and an assortment of afro-percussion instruments.
Pharoah enters on contrabass clarinet, contrabass pitched an octave lower than the regular bass clarinet. More twists and turns follow, leading to an extended death rattle, and a subsequent return to peace. All-Music describes Sun in Aquarius as ” like an exorcism, one of the most astonishing pieces by Sanders ever”.
Vinyl: ABC Impulse AS 9190 US 3rd pressing (1972)
Recorded in late 1969 at Plaza Sound, eighth floor of Radio City Music Hall, no Van Gelder, LW Longwear Plating Company metal parts, no pressing plant identity.
The Matrix code has a suffix RE 2 both sides, which no-one remarks on, indicates at least two attempts at mastering Jewels. Not necessarily a bad thing, on the contrary, it shows the cutting engineer was not happy with the first result , or was not very good at his job, and recut another acetate for a better result.
All Discogs entries with black/ red rim label have the same RE 2 etching – the same originating metal, no sonic difference, but first is first, you are either first, or not.
A different mystery lurks in the Impulse run out. Barely visible to the naked eye, a tiny hand-etching in the acetate, a quarter of the size of the matrix characters. . The recording engineer was George Sawtelle, which name doesn’t fit. It looks like a short name, “Bert”, is my guess. But Bert who? (Update, Doom Girl has figured it out, Geo, George Sawtelle, just difficult to stroke the letter in acetate)
Gatefold offering with artist photos, always a nice extra touch, though now yellowing with age. Stewart’s use of flash, rather than natural light, throws a shadow behind each subject, which results in what looks like a collection of amateur “snaps”.
Whilst Chuck Stewart is no Francis Wolff, who excelled in capturing the person, Stewart documents the paraphernalia, see what a contrabass clarinet actually looks like, Idris Muhammed’s patchwork waistcoat, McBee and Davis’s choice of contrasting T-shirts, Lonnie Liston Smith is about to whack a gong, and Leon Thomas puzzling how to operate a thumb piano: so where exactly does the thumb go?,
Early seventies Impulse covers were not built to last, they stopped the beautiful lamination found on earlier Impulse covers, these later manufactured now prone to show ring-wear, especially through dark colours. Harry’s Place
Leon Thomas, Montreux, 1970
The full spiritual astrological fix, The Sun In Aquarius in one 27 minute take: .
AS-9190 Jewels Of Thought: Vinyl Edition History
Jewels Of Thought was pressed more or less continuously on the black/red rim label in the short time between 1970-72.The main difference in the labels is Impulse trademark registration,
AS-9197 the last single logo box. no ®, AS 9198 and later the two-box , so ®:AS-9190 first edition must be single logo-box no ®. Some copies are found with mixed labels, easily overlooked unless you know what you are looking for.
(1) 1970 first issue, no registration mark ® at bottom of the Impulse and ABC logos, which are encased in a single rainbow coloured box and no year on the label footer. (2), still 1970, trademark registration: the logo divides into two separate rainbow boxes with ® either side (3), the year 1971 appears in the copyright footer (4), the year is updated to 1972 This copy is the 1972 repress – with the same metal as the first issue.
Thereafter the familiar corporate label design changes follow, black neon (5), green bullseye (6), and finally (7) MCA rainbow (1979+). These later pressings are generally not desirable, often remastered – lost continuity with the original cut, and pressed on thin vinyl, poor quality, an industry-wide characteristic of the late ’70s.
There is some suggestion that many of Pharoah’s recordings were lost in the 2008 Universal fire, though this has never been confirmed.
Reissued just a couple of years ago by the US Anthology label, who also launched a triple LP box set of Pharoah’s titles Plenty of sealed copies of Jewels Of Thought for £20 on Discogs – licensed by UMG/Verve to Anthology, but slated as a poorly executed needle-drop with major surface noise pressing issues. “Licensed” does not ensure original sources, seems they can use anything they like, a major error by UMG..
Vinyl Collector’s Guide to Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders is considered by many as the inheritor of Coltrane’s revolutionary mantle, famed for his overblowing, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques on the saxophone. However his music evolved over five decades from free-jazz experimentalist to contemporary spiritual healer, and it has passed through all musical formats from vinyl to digital download, and hopefully back to vinyl. Let’s see if a vinyl collector’s viewpoint can shed new but appreciative light on the the phenomenon that is Pharoah Sanders and his heritage.
Highlights – early recording career
Sanders first set out his stall in the mid ’60s, age 24, with abrasive free jazz on ESP Disc, though Bethera is a remarkably straight Coltranesque reading. John, is that you?
In the following two years Sanders joined Coltrane on nearly twenty albums. Then signing with Impulse! Sanders shifted towards a more gentle, spiritual aesthetic, dubbed cosmic jazz, or spiritual jazz, a style which he developed along side Alice Coltrane and her brand of eclectic Eastern mysticism..
Sanders recorded eleven albums for Impulse!, many long meditative soundscapes punctuated by searing saxophonics, starting with Tauhid (Islam – “the Oneness of God”) in late 1966 and the most well known title, Karma 1969 home of The Creator Has A Master Plan (Buddist/Hindu – past influences future). Let’s not argue exactly which Creator.
Just these two Sanders albums were produced by Bob Thiele. Tauhid was the only Sanders album recorded by Van Gelder. British Jazz writer Chris May wrote
“Audio quality is sometimes missing from the remaining Impulse! discs”
May infers it’s down to Ed Michel, but vinyl collectors know why. After Ed Michel became Impulse! house producer, all future Sanders studio sessions were recorded in other studios, including RCA, NYC; Town Studios Englewood NJ; Plaza Sounds, NYC; A&R Studios, NYC; The Record Plant LA; Wally Heider SF; The Village Recorder, LA; The Ash Grove SF; and the Coltrane Home Studio, Dix Hills, NY. Archie Shepp Impulse sessions similarly moved from Englewood Cliffs to RCA Studios NYC in 1968. I haven’t checked if every Impulse artist abandoned Englewood Cliffs, but key artists did, and not for the better.
Basically, Impulse studio recording sessions after 1968 are a lottery (US vernacular: “a crapshoot”) as to who was behind the dials and who mixed and cut the masters. I have read elsewhere Michel was under pressure from ABC to cut costs., but also more albums seem to have been recorded in LA and San Francisco, as the musical centre of gravity moved west. The fine art of reading between the lines: Michel reportedly complained, cryptically, that Sanders sessions suffered “an excess of incense”. Perhaps Michel and Pharoah were not really on the same page.
Pharoah began to introduce a stronger element of funk to his recordings, selecting drummer Norman Connors and fusion bassist Stanley Clarke. The music became more easy-going. Finally Sanders broke with Impulse! in late 1973, and was lost from sight for several of years,
1976: a turning point
Sanders returned from the shadows to the studios in 1976, recording Pharoah for India Navigation, with the 20-minute Harvest Time bordering on atmospheric background music, a style which came to dominate his later work.
Later recording career
After recording for India Navigation, Nova and Arista, Sanders settled in at Theresa Records during the ’80s. Theresa was a California-based jazz label, which was a welcoming home for many jazz musician from earlier decades, including Nat Adderley, George Coleman and John Hicks. Sanders re-visited his long association with Leon Thomas on the Theresa album Shukuru (Swahili: “Gratitude”) . I’m not familiar with any of these works, comments welcome. I see on the Forum DG has been on a Pharoah binge! Pure coincidence, but a timely choice.
Occasional sessions for Timeless, the Dutch record company and jazz label, are among the last of Pharoah’s output on vinyl. Timeless had a very good and interesting roster of artists, but vinyl quality was not the best.
In the name of progress, portability and convenience, the world migrated to The Evil Silver Disc, and Pharoah with it. He made a couple of recordings for Verve in the mid ’90s but a promised contract and recording deal never materialised, and he rapidly became disillusioned with the record business. Live appearances at music festivals seemed a more promising opportunity, but in a 2003 interview he confided the problem of being a jazz legend – finding jazz-literate sidemen:
“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”.
Interesting observation. Perhaps explains the longevity of groups like Billy Harper and the Cookers, it’s the old guys who know how to play. Both Cecil McBee and Richard Davies are still with us even today, but perhaps without Sanders appetite for touring and live performance.
Pharoah continued with other collaborations, hip hop, ethnography, and his latest landing point, the soporific Floating Points album, Electronica DJ Sam Shepherd with the string section of the London Symphony Orchestra, which seems to hit the spot with a new audience:
Sign of the times, Pharoah seems to be inspiring a lot of people in search of spiritual calm, rather than dj-funk, or late Coltrane expressionism. Read the many pages of comments on Floating Points, “the most beautiful thing I have ever heard” begs the reply “You’ve been listening to the wrong stuff, my friend. Welcome to Jazz, we do beautiful here”
Floating Points is reportedly rekindling interest in Sanders discography. The scarcity of Pharoah’s original vinyl could get worse still. We can only hope Universal Music Group has a Masterplan.
So many albums, so little time, which are Pharoah’s best albums?
One music site Best Ever Albums is dedicated to that bone of contention: Which are (fill in blank)“best albums”. A simple online commerce site whose ratings are based on no more than a few hundred “reader votes”, often less. These below are rated as Sanders ten best albums, starting with Karma at Number One, Black Unity at Two and so on.
Jazz critics seem to point to Tauhid as the best of Sanders’ Impulse! recordings, largely for the beauty of its opener, the 16-minute ‘Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt’. and I add a reminder – the only Van Gelder.
Pharoah’s most desirable records
If you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer. Ask a different question – what are Pharoah’s most sought after, most collectable records? Defer to the wisdom of collectors, putting their money where their mouth is rather than just tick a box. Based on highest prices paid at auction, five titles featuring Pharoah stand out.
Top of the tree by a mile ($1,000+), Sun Ra’s Black Harold on Saturn (1964) , featuring Pharoah in typical Sun Ra free-spelling as ‘”Pharaoah” in free jazz mode, with Sun Ra in angular Space Boogie mode. Judge for yourself before bidding. . .
Closely followed by Pharoah on India Navigation (IMHO,sublime!), mostly around the $500 mark, and Alice Coltrane’s Ptah, El Daoud (Yes!! Beautiful but don’t have) with Pharoah Sanders AND Joe Henderson on Impulse, mostly around $300, if you ever see it. Only then do the two most desired Sanders Impulse! titles, Tauhid and Karma, make a showing.
In the absence of true audiophile AAA legitimate pressings (Universal Music Group, please note!) the void has been filled by unlicensed copies. poor quality digital transfers, needle-drops, and Youtube freebie-surfers. Not the best treatment of Sanders legacy. The only light on the horizon is a couple of recent Pure Pleasure vinyl reissues (Rejoice and Izipho Zam) PP do a good job of mastering from what I assume to be hi-res digital copies. .
What original tapes do UMe still have? Will Kevin Gray find time in his busy schedule for Pharoah? The search for Pharoah Sanders’ greatness on vinyl continues.
Are you a Pharoah-phan, or not so much? Any personal favourites or recommendations? Even snarky comments welcome, asking for a friend.
What is “Spiritual Jazz”? It’s a label slapped on many types of albums – what is spiritual about it?.
Apparently 24% of Americans consider themselves “spiritual”, but not “religious” , an interesting distinction. It sits most comfortably on anything that claims inspiration from ancient Eastern religions, but not Western ones – that would be “religious”, or even evangelical. Primitive cultures, ancient wisdom, natural world – good,
Coltrane wrote of his final album,” Welcome”: “that feeling you have when you finally do reach an awareness, an understanding which you have earned through struggle. It is a welcome feeling of peace.”
Mystical, esoteric, and non-materialistic, meditative, contemplative, transcending earthly desires, given to universal values like Love, Peace and Understanding, Harmony with The Universe. Spirituality starting above the waistline, as opposed to Earthly Desires from below.. That is the place of other forms of jazz, in the origins of the name.
At that point, I decided alternative labels Cosmic Jazz and Astral Jazz don’t do it justice. It is about Inner Space, not Outer Space. Spiritual Jazz was indeed a search for peace, rooted in the social and material discontents of the decade 1965-75, offering transport to new worlds and inner realms, and most importantly, escape from this one.
A journey of such importance can’t be achieved through Easy Listening. It must be achieved through struggle, hence the musical forms must be demanding. Peace is the reward of the struggle. Pharoah understood this, Hum Allah, Hum Allah Hum Allah, yoe yoe yoe
Previous LJC review of Sanders 1975 French ORTF session
Ian S has shared an interview with Pharoah from The Melody Maker, British music press, 1980, in which Pharoah owns up to making a funk album for the money. I expect he’s not the first person to have done that. The line-up at the Bracknell Jazz Festival is positively mouthwatering. It’s pity my Time Machine is currently in for its 5,000 year service.