It’s not like we expected him to materialize in a coil of stardust, but it still felt surprising to watch Pharoah Sanders take the bandstand late in life. I saw him perform twice — at Bohemian Caverns in 2011 and at Blues Alley a few years later — and each show began with a titan of American jazz plodding his way through the crowd, navigating a miniature maze of cocktail tables, his gait unforgettably heavy, his posture hunched, as if his world-changing music was something he carried around on his back. Then he’d find his place under the lights and start blowing bravura phrases through his saxophone until Earth’s gravity started to loosen.
Is that why people called his music “spiritual jazz?” Because it made us feel like we were being released from the physical world? Sanders — who died in Los Angeles on Saturday at 81 — often described his work as a search for something that couldn’t be found, a quest toward the unknowable that he’d committed himself to since joining John Coltrane’s side in 1965. When Coltrane died two years later, many were quick to nominate Sanders as his heir: “Pharoah has incredible power, and incredible tenderness soulfulness,” the critic Amiri Baraka (known as LeRoi Jones at the time) wrote in the Cricket magazine in 1968, “like a love of playing, of sound, that will spread your consciousness dazzled among his notes.”
That’s high praise and solid advice. Embracing Sanders’s expressive range as a metaphor for expanding consciousness is a very good place to begin to understand how this music can make you feel as if you’re taller than a house, or as if you’re swimming in the ozone layer, or any other exemptions to the laws of physics that his recordings might so generously offer. Across a sensational run of albums from the late 1960s through the mid-’70s — “Tauhid,” “Karma,” “Journey in Satchidananda” with Alice Coltrane just for starters — Sanders used his horn to lay all kinds of brayed melodies and ecstatic squeals on God’s doorstep.
But ultimately, his search for transcendence may have simply been a pursuit of contentment. The vocal refrain of his signature composition, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” has always suggested as much, envisioning “peace and happiness for every man” — one of those sweeping, cosmic, utopian ideas that may only manifest through the mundane. “I listen to things that maybe some guys don’t,” Sanders told the New Yorker in 2020 when asked about his current influences. “I listen to the waves of the water. Train coming down. Or I listen to an airplane taking off … I’ve always been like that, especially when I was small. I used to love hearing old car doors squeaking.”
Maybe higher planes aren’t higher. Maybe they’re small and all around us. You don’t have to squint your ears too hard to hear the implication in last year’s “Promises,” a collaboration album with British producer Floating Points that allowed Sanders to play some of the most delicate phrases of his life. If anything, the intimate melancholy of “Promises” suggests that transcendence is something we can only ever yearn for. That’s why we listen, then, now and tomorrow.