Review: Pharoah Sanders in Glasgow
Despite a 25-minute solo, throaty multiphonics and shrieking falsettos, Fred Grand senses a whiff of classicism in the performance of the one-time enfant terrible of ’New Thing’
Jumping straight into an uptempo modal burner, Sanders soloed for almost 25 minutes before handing over the reins to Henderson. Edging forwards with a cumulatively building intensity, he went through his entire repertoire of gravelly overtones, throaty multiphonics and shrieking falsettos. Yet unlike those wild free-for-alls with Coltrane, this was a tightly-drawn affair with clear and obvious boundaries - I'd even go as far as to suggest that there was a whiff of classicism in the air.
The organisers of the 26th Glasgow International Jazz Festival could hardly have wished for a better curtain-raiser than Wednesday evening's love-in with Pharoah Sanders. He was once the enfant terrible of "New Thing", but time has softened his approach and he now embraces the very same largely modal post-bop agenda that he once so controversially helped an increasingly restless John Coltrane to reject. Almost as much as McCoy Tyner he is now the living embodiment of Trane's enduring legacy, a legacy which almost five decades later remains the dominant influence on jazz.
Situated in the heart of Glasgow's historic Merchant City, the Old Fruitmarket must be one of the UK's most distinctive festival venues. A cavernous space, it oozes period charm and is miraculously blessed with superb acoustics. Bedecked with fairy lights, it bore an uncanny resemblance to a fairground big-top as the white-haired and increasingly frail septuagenarian entered the stage. I saw Sanders in this very same hall around a decade ago and remember being somewhat shocked by a clean-shaven new image. The dark shades and brilliant white Miami Vice-style suit had seemed a slightly incongruous mode of attire for one of jazz's most openly spiritual mystics, but this time the square-cut beard was back and his garb was far more in keeping with expectations.
Appearing on a short UK tour that will also take him to Ronnie Scott's, Sanders was joined by long-term collaborator William Henderson (piano) and local talent Oli Hayhurst (bass) and Gene Calderazzo (drums). Right from the off the group performed like a well-oiled machine, and this was the same polished Sanders who had turned out a string of almost mainstream sessions for Theresa/Timeless during the 80s and 90s. Jumping straight into an uptempo modal burner, Sanders soloed for almost 25 minutes before handing over the reins to Henderson. Edging forwards with a cumulatively building intensity, he went through his entire repertoire of gravelly overtones, throaty multiphonics and shrieking falsettos. Yet unlike those wild free-for-alls with Coltrane, this was a tightly-drawn affair with clear and obvious boundaries - I'd even go as far as to suggest that there was a whiff of classicism in the air.
Sliding smoothly into Coltrane's After The Rain, the first of several gorgeous ballads, Sanders showed considerable poise and technique. Whilst New Thing contemporaries including Archie Shepp have beaten a similar path towards the mainstream over recent years, Sanders has taken the trouble to refine his technique and is all the more satisfying for that. His sheets of sound are now firmly under control, and a deep harmonic palette ensures that even where solos may occasionally suffer from a low turnover of ideas, he always sounds authoritative. Origin, another strident, uptempo crowd pleaser, was dispatched with a driven urgency that once again allowed Sanders to run through his full repertoire. But it was the darkly lyrical grooves of Nozipho, from the Bill Laswell produced Message From Home (Verve, 1996), which provided the evening's real highlight. Henderson really dug in, delivering his most creative and forthright solo of the night, and if Sanders' slightly tentative and impromptu jig was any reliable indicator, he was certainly feeling the spirit. Illustrating just how effective Sanders' move from blow-torch to slow-burn has been, it lifted the proverbial hairs of the nape.
Once upon a time the audience participation during The Creator Has A Master Plan and Highlife would have been unthinkable, but Sanders is now a very different type of artist to the firebrand of yore. It is a sad-but-true fact that an increasingly small group of players of his standing are left performing today. Witnessing him in full-cry can feel like an enactment of history, and when the lights finally do go out on his colourful career he will have thoroughly earned his place in the sun.
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