Pharoah Sanders was gingerly making his way onto the stage at Baby’s Alright in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when he stumbled just for a moment on a tangle of plugs and cords. The room collectively seemed to gasp—the legendary sax player is a former acolyte of John Coltrane; at a spry 74 years old, Sanders is still, you know, 74 years old.
Disaster averted, with a hand from the youngest and fifth touring member of the Pharoah Sanders Quartet, the man and legend took his place at the front of the stage, and with a single, unmistakable, overblown wail on his tenor saxophone, blew all lingering notions of “frailty” straight out the back of the room, into the spring twilight falling over the East River. That was before the stoic, bearded man, started shaking his hips and going down low during the piano solo.
It’s impossible to say what the audience was supposed to expect out of a Pharoah Sanders show in 2015. In the course of a 50-year career, Sanders has gone through many phases: the third soloist on John Coltrane’s angular free-jazz workout, Ascension, in the mid ’60s; a dulcet flute player on Alice Coltrane’s Ptah, the El Daoud; leading a band that included Lonnie Liston Smith on piano, and recording some of the funkiest, most beautiful African-influenced free jazz records ever made in the mid-’70s, before taking a more pensive, almost New Age, turn in the late ’80s into the ’90s.
Rather than drawing from any one era, Sanders and the quartet—bass, piano, drums, and an occasional vocalist—treated the audience to an overview. Although he’s known for his ability to match Trane at his harshest—ripping from overblown, screaming high notes down to the tenor saxophone’s gravelly lows—Sanders can take the heat off his fast ball. For two songs in middle of the set, he played a tasteful counterpoint while their vocalist breezed through a bit of bebop and a touch of blues, including the smooth, “Too Young to Go Steady,” a standard for the John Coltrane Quartet way back at the beginning of the ’60s.
Those harsher ’70s records—the nearly 40-minute workout Black Unity, for example—just sound too physically demanding to be played. The personnel wasn’t there, and perhaps the air wasn’t either. But a subdued Pharoah is still full of surprises. With his endurance either whittled away, or just carefully parceled out on a night with both early and late sets, Sanders still pushed his instrument beyond its limits. Sliding the bell of his sax up until it was swallowing the microphone brought waves of mild feedback rippling out of the speakers. Without even putting his mouth on the saxophone, Sanders tapped the keys, wavering the feedback’s pitch, playing the entire venue as his instrument.
The vocalist returned as Sanders started the famous high strains that launch “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” the closest thing to a hit that he, or perhaps even the genre of free jazz, has produced. It was an unmistakable closer for an artist who, through five decades of music, has remained distinctly himself, even as the music has constantly changed.
Who knows what that second set sounded like?