Jazz ’round L.A.
By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
One of Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definitions of a “wizard” is “a person who is very good at something.” And most images of a wizard envision an aging, white-haired, white-bearded visage.
If you add the definition to the image, and paint it black-presto! You have one of the greatest tenor players of all time: Pharoah Sanders.
As one of the originators of the free jazz genre, Sanders, as well as his living brethren- Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins and Archie Shepp-and other real jazz artists must be seen and heard whenever they’re among us.
Just saying “Pharoah Sanders” conjures up memories of a 20-something-year-old on some of his earliest avant-garde pairings with his jazz godfather, John Coltrane, in 1965: “Kulu Sé Mama,” “Om,” “Meditations” and “Ascension.” Theirs was a true mutual admiration society.
And when he played “My Favorite Things” at Catalina Bar and Grill this past weekend, if you closed your eyes, it was hard to tell whether Coltrane had come back to life, or you were listening to the Pharoah Sanders Quartet.
Save for the slightly slower 6/8 time signature and the heavily percussive touches by Sanders himself-he variously jangled a long twist of cowbells and vigorously shook two huge tambourines-“Things” evoked the same smooth-sailing, calming feelings audiences must have felt when Sanders played as part of Coltrane’s final group in the ’60s.
Nowadays many a jazz musician takes the stage and utters not one word during the entire set, preferring to let their music-and the memories of their histories, known to their fans-speak for them. And so it was with Sanders, who did not speak. With consummate, McCoy Tyner-like jazz piano work by his longtime accompanist William Henderson, and steady pumping and thumping bow work by bassist James Leary, and able drumming by Kharon Harrison (who’s only been playing with this band for two years), Sanders didn’t need to speak: All he had to do was blow.
And blow he did, opening up the set with his signature fiery, nonconventional sax honks. The sound and fury of his free-jazz stylings were tempered only by the slow pace with which he mounted the stage, requiring him to lean on the steps’ railing for assistance. But his age (71) and apparent infirmities in no way dissipated the enthusiasm he displayed on his own virtuosic solos and during Henderson’s masterful solos and the drummer’s energetic contributions.
On a couple of the songs-including the one most closely with the combo Sanders led in the late ’60s and early ’70s that featured singer Leon Thomas-Sanders re-created the magic that was the original Thomas-led “The Creator Has a Master Plan” from Sanders’ “Karma” album in 1969. Even without a lead vocalist, his saxophone ‘sang’ the tune in such a way as to inspire “peace and happiness for every man”-and woman-in the audience.
And then, he spoke!, though only to introduce the members of his band and himself. Then, despite the exuberant cries of “Encore! Encore!,” once the introductions ended, poof! the wizard disappeared to his dressing room.
Next real jazz ’round L.A.: Christian McBride at Catalina Bar and Grill.