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Hep Cats’ Turn to Howl

July 18, 2008

By Paul Weideman, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Jul. 18–Pharoah Sanders, one of the headliners at this year’s New Mexico Jazz Festival, is known for a singular style and sound on the tenor saxophone. He’s capable of inhabiting grooves by turns wild and restrained. His playing has both power and intricacy, with subtle voices in his controlled microtones and rasping vibrato.

I discovered Sanders’ music one day in the late 1970s in a little sandwich shop in Pacific Palisades, California. There was a really cool, India-vibe piece coming from a tape player, and when I asked about it, I was told the album was called Journey in Satchidananda. Harpist/pianist Alice Coltrane, wife of the late saxophone innovator John Coltrane, was the leader on the 1970 session. With her were saxophonist Sanders, drummer Rashied Ali, and bassists Cecil McBee and Charlie Haden. The album offers an immersion in minor modes and snaky themes, featuring a spellbinding interplay with Coltrane’s cascading harp, the buzzing drone of the tamboura, and Sanders’ shivery, free-flowing and wide-ranging soprano sax.

Ever since, it has been easy to see Sanders as a spiritual musician, like the Coltranes were. In a recent interview, the saxophonist answered a question about this impression with a certain offhandedness. “I don’t know. That’s kind of what I do,” he said. “I guess that’s how it’s done. Whatever the spirit brings.”

He began his relationship with the tenor sax in high school. It wasn’t very long before he was playing in the free-jazz realm with Dewey Redman, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Billy Higgins, and Sun Ra. Sanders grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, with the name Farell, but he was christened “Pharoah” by Ra when he joined the older musician’s Arkestra in the early ’60s. The iconoclastic Ra was known for his bizarre attire and experimental jazz. The fact that he claimed to be from another dimension, or perhaps just from Saturn, didn’t detract from the quality of his musical explorations and innovations. His “adjustment” of Sanders’ name was quite in line with a flexibility about his own moniker, which he changed from Herman Sonny Blount to Le Sony’r Ra, then simplified to Sun Ra.

In 1964, John Coltrane asked him to sit in with his band, and Sanders became a frequent collaborator, including on more than a dozen adventurous albums before Coltrane’s death in 1967.

Sanders is one of the many jazz musicians who keep Coltrane’s music alive with new takes on his songs. His most recent live album, 2003′s The Creator Has a Master Plan, includes renditions of the Coltrane standards “Welcome” and “It’s Easy to Remember.”

He answered questions about his work with Coltrane, and about improvisation, abstractly. “It was just, you know, communication, and being independent in that way, doing what you want to do. … You give somebody music and you see the changes, or the rhythm pattern, whatever it is. That’s the reason why someone gives you that, to let you know what to do. I can’t tell nobody what to play, even though I can give you chord changes. That’s what I’ve always done, when I played with someone else. I know I can play this way or that way, but still I have to know what I’m doing. It may be something very simple, but it can be very hard to play.”

Asked about the experience of making joyful music in these difficult times, Sanders said, “I don’t know. I just try to live and have a peaceful life, have a happy life. Peace and happiness.”

He plays Santa Fe with his longtime quartet, which includes Joe Farnsworth on drums, Nat Reeves on bass, and William Henderson on piano. Sanders didn’t have any notion of a song list for the festival performance. “We just want to play some serious music,” he said.

Tom Guralnick, executive director of the Outpost Performance Space in Albuquerque, said Sanders has mellowed somewhat over the years. “He has moved more in the direction of playing tunes, but he also goes to that place, to that level of deep, emotionally charged music,” said Guralnick, one of the three presenters of the jazz festival. The others are “Bumble Bee” Bob Weil, whose Santa Fe Jazz Foundation has been bringing jazz to the city since 1991, and Bob Martin, director of the Lensic Performing Arts Center.

The summer festival lineup is a little leaner than it was last year, although the festival presented concerts by Pat Metheny, Charles Lloyd, and the SFJAZZ Collective in March. The reason for the cutback in the programming this July was to avoid having events held at the same time in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, which has happened in previous years.

One of the coolest things about this year’s festival is that Guralnick has Kenny Garrett for two nights at the Outpost. Audiences will have a chance to hear the saxophonist’s hot quintet in a small venue. “It’s not quite a club, but it’s close,” Guralnick said.

The first time Guralnick saw Garrett play was with Miles Davis at Popejoy Hall. The last time was a recent date at the Iridium club in New York, with the same band that plays at the Outpost. “He’s got this young B3 player [Corey Henry] who’s like, right out of the church. The kid was unbelievable,” Guralnick said. “On a certain level it was almost like Kenny took a back seat, but then he’d jump in and take it another notch up. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen.”

Garrett, a Detroit native, played with Mercer Ellington’s band when he was still a high-schooler. He went on to work with Miles Davis from 1986 to 1991, and he has since that time made music with Mulgrew Miller, Terence Blanchard, Al Jarreau, Michael Urbaniak, Roy Haynes, and Steve Turre.

In 2004, Garrett was in Northern New Mexico to perform with student members of the Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Ensemble. In an interview at that time, he told Pasatiempo, “At my live shows you get a chance to hear everything. We do standards, but probably 90 percent is my music, and some is influenced by classical music and some by hip-hop. I try not to limit it. As much as I love people like Coltrane and Miles, I can’t be them; I have to be Kenny Garrett.”

Another festival highlight this year is rhythm-and-blues star Allen Toussaint, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. “His greatest contribution was in not allowing the city’s [New Orleans] old-school R & B traditions to die out but by keeping pace with developments in the rapidly evolving worlds of soul and funk,” according to the organization’s Web site. “Many listeners heard New Orleans-style piano for the first time via Toussaint’s playing on Ernie K-Doe’s No. 1 hit, ‘Mother-in-Law.’ ‘Fortune Teller,’ written pseudonymously by Toussaint and recorded by Jessie Hill, became a virtual standard among British Invasion bands. The early Rolling Stones and Who, among others, included it in their live repertoire.”

During his career, Toussaint has worked with hundreds of performers as pianist, arranger, or producer. They include Dr. John, Ramsey Lewis, Lee Dorsey, James Cotton, Patti Labelle, The Band, Joe Cocker, Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, Wings, and Elvis Costello.

The New Mexico Jazz Festival presenters had one significant hitch this year when Youssou N’Dour canceled his U.S. tour. Guralnick quickly lined up another act from Africa, Habib Koite and his band Bamada, as the replacement.

“It’s pretty much Tom doing the booking. He has the contacts,” Weil said about lining up musical acts for the jazz fest. “It’s a real challenge this time of year because all these guys are in Europe and everywhere. It’s a big headache that Tom lives through to get it done.”

Although they work to come up with an eclectic lineup for the festival, each of the presenters has his own musical preferences. Weil likes the old-fashioned, swinging style of jazz. “This time, it’s probably Paquito D’Rivera,” he said. “I knew him when he was playing with the Dizzy Gillespie International Orchestra, along with [James] Moody and Jon Faddis, a bunch of good guys. So I’ll enjoy seeing Paquito, as an old acquaintance.”

And the Preservation Hall Jazz Band? “They’re always good. It’s that good old Dixieland jazz. I love that. Tom always tries to have someone pretty traditional in the mix.”

Weil hopes he can channel proceeds from this year’s festival to his Santa Fe Jazz Foundation, which he established many years ago to help jazz musicians in need and to support college jazz programs. “Last year we had a big loss, because we paid a lot for Sonny Rollins,” he said. “This year I’m hoping we make a little money. We raise about $120,000 from the community, from various foundations and from gifts, for the festival. Without that, we couldn’t do it at all. We have an 800-seat house, and these people want to get paid practically the same here as they would at the Hollywood Bowl, so that’s the problem.”

Also playing in the next week are Kanoa Kaluhiwa’s AfriLatin Jazz Ensemble and Le Chat Lunatique, presented by Outside In as part of the free summer music series on the Santa Fe Plaza; and five events at various locations in Albuquerque. Performers from July 25 through July 28 include Koite and his band, D’Rivera and his Funk Tango Quintet, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and star vocalist Cassandra Wilson. For the complete schedule of events, see newmexicojazzfestival.org.

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