The most hypnotic piece of music released so far in 2023 was recorded forty-seven years ago in a barely adequate studio in Rockland County, New York. Somewhere between minimalist meditation and impassioned slow jam, “Harvest Time” features a tenor saxophonist improvising over a spare, minor-key theme, drifting in and out against a backdrop of electric guitar, bass, and harmonium. It’s a work of atmospheric, almost tactile beauty, whose pleasures lie in the texture of the playing as much as the melody itself: the liquid warmth of the guitar, the vibrations of the harmonium, the saxophonist’s vibrato and breath, the cycle of sound and sound’s decay.
Pharaoh Sanders recorded “Harvest Time” in August and September 1976. It filled the entire A-side of his 1977 album Pharoah, his first in a few years. His contract with Impulse Records, the label for which he’d made a string of successful albums, had ended, and he was going through a period of turbulence. Bob and Nancy Cummins, the husband-and-wife team who ran India Navigation Records and revered Sanders, invited him to make a record. Pharoah started out as a duet between Sanders on tenor saxophone and his bassist Steve Neil, but Sanders’s idea for the ensemble quickly grew more ambitious. The Cumminses, fans moonlighting as producers, weren’t prepared, and Sanders was so frustrated by the conditions of the studio in Rockland County that he walked out. After much pleading from the couple, he returned a month later to finish the recording, but he disliked the album and all but disavowed it, and for many years resisted requests to reissue it.
It’s not hard to understand his disappointment. Pharoah did sound a little rickety, more like a bootleg than a professional studio recording. But for the album’s admirers, that lack of polish only enhanced its clandestine aura. (As every fan knows, music you love is all the more beautiful when you’re not supposed to have heard it.) Even as it fell out of print, Pharoah became a cult item, passed around by its admirers, sampled in Talib Kweli’s “Great Expectations.”
Sanders, who died last year at eighty-one, never changed his mind about Pharoah, but after several years of conversations with the label Luaka Bop, he finally agreed to have it reissued. The result is a handsome box set, featuring a luminous remastering of the original album and two live performances of “Harvest Time” from a 1977 European tour along with interviews with Sanders and others, as well as essays by the critics Harmony Holiday, Pierre Crépon, and Marcus Moore, photographs of Sanders, and other memorabilia. The impressive packaging is somewhat improbable for an album that came close to vanishing—and music that seems to vanish each time you hear it. Once “Harvest Time” is over, you might think it was just a dream. Not unlike Kind of Blue, it finds depth in simplicity, a sense of radiant presence in the ephemeral.
The son of a school-cafeteria cook and a city employee, Ferrell Sanders was born in 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas. His grandmother called him Pharoah; the name stuck. His family was so poor they couldn’t buy records, but—as Sanders told one of his producers at Luaka Bop, in an interview recorded a few days before his death—they were widely admired as amateur singers in the community, although they never gave “a thought about trying to be heard singing.” Sanders started out on drums before taking up the saxophone. Playing in blues and R&B bands, he was often forced to perform behind a curtain because whites “didn’t want to see black people.”
In 1959 he fled Arkansas and settled in Oakland, California, where he studied with the alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons. A couple years later he came to New York, where he was known as “Little Rock.” During his first year in the city he slept in the subway and paid for food by donating blood, until he got a job in the kitchen of the Playhouse, a restaurant in the Village. He didn’t socialize much—he recalled being the “quiet person in the corner, checking out everything” during his early years in New York—but he began sitting in with the Afrofuturist pianist and bandleader Sun Ra, another refugee from the Jim Crow South. In 1963 he formed a quartet with the pianist John Hicks, the bassist Wilbur Ware, and the drummer Billy Higgins.
Like most young saxophonists in New York in those years, Sanders was drawn to both Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane (who were in turn drawn to each other). His debut album, a 1964 quintet date called Pharoah, on ESP, veered in both directions, pairing Coleman-style themes with incendiary, Coltrane-style improvising. (Sanders would also appear on two classic albums by Coleman’s associate, the trumpeter Don Cherry, Symphony for Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn?, recorded in 1966 and 1967.) But he ultimately aligned himself with Coltrane, who hired Sanders after hearing him at the Village Gate. Coltrane reminded Sanders of a preacher and treated him like a son. He included Sanders on the epochal free-blowing session Ascension, recorded in June 1965, and made him a member of his band. Sanders distinguished himself—and terrified some audiences, who didn’t know what to make of him—with his use of dissonant “extended techniques” on the horn, such as multiphonics (playing several notes at once), overblowing, and circular breathing, which allowed him to produce fluttering, vaguely Eastern-sounding tones.
“I always wondered why I was there with him and why he wanted me to stay with him,” Sanders recalled. “He could have had anyone—someone more musically mature and advanced like Joe Henderson.” Many listeners were similarly mystified by Coltrane’s decision. Sanders’s purposefully shrill screams—both in concert and on albums like Meditations and Kulu Sé Mama—were even more jarring, and seemed far less disciplined, than Coltrane’s. But Coltrane, who introduced Sanders to his producer at Impulse, Bob Thiele, regarded his protégé as “a man of large spiritual reservoir” and hailed “the strength of his playing.” No doubt he also appreciated the rawness—the visceral, country sound—of Sanders’s tenor. The “social consciousness” exhibited by Sanders’s explosive playing, Amiri Baraka declared, “is more radical than sit-ins. We get to Feel-Ins, Know-Ins, Be-Ins.”
After Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders became one of Impulse’s most popular (and best-paid) artists, and one of the central figures—along with Coltrane’s widow, Alice, on whose early albums he performed—in “spiritual jazz.” The movement drew inspiration from Coltrane’s devotional masterpiece, A Love Supreme, and from the growing sense of connection among young black musicians to what was then proudly called “the Third World.” For these musicians jazz was the expression not so much of American democracy (a democracy that, in any case, had never respected their rights) as of a vast, insurrectionary terrain whose borders stretched from Africa and Asia to the streets of Harlem, Watts, and the South Side of Chicago.
This region of the mind didn’t have a president, but it did have a pharaoh. The composer of “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt” wasn’t from Egypt—he was from Little Rock. But he didn’t look like he was from Little Rock, with his ceremonial robes and hats and beatific manner. (Kamasi Washington’s style, musical and sartorial, is vintage Sanders.) The groups he led were large ensembles, communal gatherings as much as bands, bristling with non-Western percussion instruments. Sanders scarcely spoke about his work—he made the shy, taciturn Coltrane seem gregarious—but he didn’t have to. His soaring, gentle growl on the tenor—incendiary yet full of yearning; radiating, by turns, insurgent impatience and serene, cosmic soul—embodied the new black consciousness as much as the voices of Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield did.
Sanders’s best-known piece, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” on the 1969 album Karma, took the bass line of the first movement of A Love Supreme and turned it into a groovy anthem, complete with yodeling by the singer Leon Thomas. (It was at the top of the Billboard jazz charts for three months.) He was still screaming on his horn: this was, after all, “fire music,” and he had plenty to spare. But he now used his kinetic overblowing as an effect, a kind of florid punctuation, rather than as the content of his playing, as he had in Coltrane’s band. For all his associations with the free jazz avant-garde, he revealed himself to be a populist, even a pop artist, playing with fervent lyricism over the simplest of vamps (but what vamps they were!).
Ed Michel, who replaced Thiele as Sanders’s producer at Impulse in 1970, likened recording him to “having a village in the studio.” Incense was lit, cooks prepared vegetarian meals for the musicians and their wives, and then “Pharoah would take an R&B lick and shake it until it vibrated to death, into freedom, and let it coalesce over a long time.” (Michel had to flash the lights on and off in the studio to get him to stop playing, which didn’t always work, because Sanders often played with his eyes closed.) Sanders was not Coltrane’s only heir on the tenor—Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler had equally strong claims—but he brought fire music to a wider audience than it had ever known, and made it part of the soundtrack of the civil rights and Black Power movements.
There’s an unmistakable element of kitsch in Sanders’s Impulse work, from the pan-religious titles (Tauhid, Karma, Summun Bukmun Umyun), to Thomas’s lyrics (“The Creator has a master plan/Peace and happiness for every man…/The Creator makes but one demand/peace and happiness through all the land”). Listening to the albums Sanders recorded from 1967 to 1973, you can almost smell the incense burning. Yet his sound is so distinctive, and so powerful, that it transcends—and indeed almost redeems—these period trappings. Elevation (1974) was Sanders’s last album on Impulse, and that’s effectively what he did: he took the humblest of riffs and made them seem impossibly grand. Unlike Coltrane, Sanders was not a harmonically sophisticated musician—his later efforts to rebrand himself as a hard-bop player were less than convincing—but he knew how to sing through his horn. “I’m not so much of a technical player myself,” he admitted in a 1995 interview, “and probably not that much of an intellectual player as some other musicians. What I do is express.”
In “Harvest Time”—a tune named by his wife at the time, Bedria, who plays harmonium on it—Sanders achieves a comparable miracle of expressive elevation, with nothing more than a languid two-chord vamp set up at his request by his guitarist, Tisziji Muñoz. (Bedria called it “harvest time” because it was recorded in September, “my favorite time of the year.”) The track begins with Muñoz playing the theme, soon joined by Steve Neil on bass. Sanders plays the theme very softly, with a delicacy and spareness reminiscent of Stan Getz playing with João Gilberto—or indeed of Gilberto himself. After a pause, he returns, playing with greater force, his tone thick with vibrato. He improvises on the theme, breaking it into ruminative phrases, before giving way to a solo by Neil.
When Sanders reappears, he explores the range of his instrument, sometimes letting out cries that suggest the falsetto leaps of a soul singer, at others descending, with a quietness bordering on secrecy, into the lower registers of the horn—all the while never losing the thread of the melody. Halfway into the piece he plays his signature flutter, but it’s unusually understated for Sanders, and instead of rising to a scream he descends, accompanied by Muñoz and Neil, into the softest of whispers, until we hear nothing but his mouthpiece—something a more “professional” recording might have corrected, but which only adds to the music’s sensuousness. After the sounding of a gong, Bedria Sanders enters on harmonium, producing a drone that moves toward us and recedes, a sound that Pharoah mimics with long, undulating tones.
The harmonium’s drone will evoke, for some listeners, the sound of the tanpuri on Alice Coltrane’s Journey into Satchidananda, which featured Pharoah on soprano saxophone. But Sanders may well have been thinking not of India but of his childhood in Little Rock, where he played the harmonium to accompany his mother’s singing, and the overall ambience of “Harvest Time” is more earthy than celestial.1 The music luxuriates in the experience, or perhaps the memory, of a season, only to mark its passing, as Sanders’s tenor fades away, overwhelmed by waves of bass, guitar, and harmonium.
“Harvest Time” was recorded between Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. and George Lewis’s Homage to Charles Parker, and it invites comparison to those masterworks of black American improvised minimalism. But unlike the highly conceptual works of Hemphill and Lewis, “Harvest Time” is almost guileless: an accidental but no less remarkable one-off. It’s fascinating to compare the studio recording with the two live versions of “Harvest Time” from August 1977, one performed in Antwerp, the other in Willisau. Sanders’s playing is majestic in both concerts, and he’s accompanied superbly by Khalid Moss on piano and electric piano, Clifford Jarvis on drums, and Hayes Burnett on bass and percussion. But these performances for a more or less traditional jazz quartet, as inviting as they are, lack the enigmatic frisson, the intimate allure, of the studio version.
What, then, was so magical about the studio session? Not the studio itself, according to Sanders: “The sound wasn’t what I wanted…. And they didn’t have the right equipment.” In her perceptive liner notes for the Luaka Bop box set, Harmony Holiday suggests that the key to understanding the recording, which she describes as “a manifesto reluctant to declare its power as such,” is that it’s “a love letter.” A love letter to whom? To Bedria, whom he’d only recently married, Holiday writes, but also to his family, and indeed to black Americans who’d found themselves in the political wilderness after the setbacks of the Nixon era.
The second track, a long and rather awkward vocal by Sanders (no substitute, alas, for the mellifluous Leon Thomas), accompanied by an expanded ensemble that includes drums and percussion, is called “Love Will Find a Way.” On the album’s third and last track, “Memories of Edith Johnson,” Sanders pays homage to his aunt Edith, “a natural” vocalist who “would sing loud and clear, and very resonant.” A haunting lament, it shifts between Sanders’s stentorian tenor and strange, sorrowful, wordless vocals. Unlike Karma, Pharoah is not a rousing, inspirational album, yet, as Holiday argues, it finds consolation and hope in family, in romantic and communal love, and in the rebirth symbolized by the autumn harvest.
Sanders appears to have been in search of a different, more commercial kind of rebirth after losing his Impulse contract, and over the next decade he would make some painfully tacky records, crossing over into R&B and easy listening. But he never lost his sound, and in the right setting he could remind you why Coltrane had hired him. He performed irresistibly exuberant covers of Coltrane and Nigerian high-life on Rejoice (1981), a straight-ahead album with an all-star band that included John Hicks and Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones, and he was incandescent on the guitarist Sonny Sharrock’s last record, Ask the Ages (1991). In The Trance of Seven Colors (1994), a collaboration with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania and a group of Moroccan Gnawa musicians, he found exactly the point at which his sound converged with theirs, achieving an unusually persuasive synthesis of black American and North African traditions (something Ornette Coleman tried and failed to do when he recorded with the Jajouka musicians on his 1977 album Dancing in Your Head).
The pioneer of fire music also transformed himself into one of jazz’s finest ballad players, above all when he was playing Coltrane tunes like “Naima” and “After the Rain.” And a year before he died, Sanders scored a surprise hit with Promises, a project with the electronic musician Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) and the London Symphony Orchestra, also released by Luaka Bop. The monotonous electro-acoustic backdrops composed by Floating Points were insipid and sometimes shamelessly derivative of Alice Coltrane, but Sanders’s playing was so sublime that it almost made you forget them.
Still, nothing that he recorded after 1977 reached the lyrical heights—the incantatory, almost mystical power—of “Harvest Time.” In an interview included on the box set, Bedria Sanders remembers that when she first met her former husband, he appeared to have “a blue light aura all around him.” Close your eyes when you listen and you might see it.