Review: Pharoah Sanders @ Barbican Centre (London; 18th November 2017)

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It’s not hard to believe that Farrell Sanders was given his nickname ‘Pharaoh’ for his ability to channel heavenly song through his improvised architecture of sound on the tenor saxophone. He started out performing with Sun Ra in California – who gave him this nickname – and later became better known for his collaborations with John Coltrane. Pharaoh is one of the last greats remaining from the cosmic ‘free jazz’ era of the ‘60s, and still has enough stamina at age 77 to invoke that same incredible religious feeling.

Playing a short set at the Barbican this November to honour both Alice and John Coltrane’s music for EFG London Jazz Festival, there was not a disengaged heart in the music hall. He hobbled across the stage with an illuminating purple cap worn backwards, taking rest on a seat at centre-stage. Leaving the band to carry the dominant weight of each song, he physically raised himself in poignant moments to deliver his trademark evolutionary sound.

The most reflective moment of the set came when he gracefully sculpted a delivery of ‘Say It (Over and Over Again)’ from Coltrane’s Ballads album. Pouring straight from the soul, he opened the song with a depth of melody which united the room and the band, from which his respective band members, William Henderson and Nat Reeves, then continued on piano and bass respectively. Joseph Farnsworth showed his dexterity behind the drum kit as he switched between muted romance too fast bebop and back again.

Bringing some playfulness to the night, he then put the saxophone aside as he had the crowd chanting ”Om” back at him in a variety of rhythms. The congregation dutifully joined in the praise out loud. An unexpected highlight from Sanders, who was committed to giving his all, came at the end when he shimmied slowly to the floor during a fast pulsating calypso rendition of ‘African Highlife’.

Pharoah is able to do two things simultaneously. He is able to perfectly capture the collective emotions of a room and then express them more articulately and beautifully than one could describe. He also expels such radiant energy through his song that he will boost each listener, leaving you feeling high on life. Pharaoh is one of a few who is able to express a pure truth in the moment.

Photo ©: Mark Allan




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