Masterful Pharoah Sanders resonates at Ronnie's

George Howlett reviews legendary tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders Quartet recent appearance at Ronnie Scott’s in London.

Pharoah Sanders Quartet, Ronnie Scott’s, 9th July

Pharoah Sanders’ career has featured many distinct chapters, but has always aimed for personal exploration rather than rebellion. It is therefore fitting that his performance at Ronnie’s revisited several of these musical phases - although he always seemed like a man naturally enjoying variety rather than playing through a deliberate retrospective. Now aged 75, he sounded at ease with the scope of his varied legacy.

In 1966 John Coltrane remarked that Pharoah’s playing ‘helps me stay alive’. This was as true on Saturday as it was half a century ago, with the influence of both Coltranes never far away from Pharoah’s music. Dense and angular runs reminiscent of John’s Impressions era featured throughout, and the opening piece had shades of Alice’s solo output, setting the stage with free-time washes of harmonic colour. Sometimes the acknowledgement was direct, with Naima’s gentle modulations proving a superb backdrop for British bassist Oli Hayhurst’s spacious playing.

A little of Pharoah’s high-register agility may have faded with age, but the essential strength of his playing has not. The vibrato still rings clear, and his signature overtones filled the room with ease. This approach continues to influence the modern jazz scene directly, with John Martin’s intriguing Hidden Notes project exploring the saxophone’s rich multiphonic capabilities.

Eagle-eared fans of J Dilla, Nujabes, and Photek may also be aware of Pharoah’s continuing influence via sampling, but modern ideas have gone the other way too. None of the musicians were held back by the past, with the sparser end of American-Londoner Gene Calderazzo’s drumming sometimes resembling D’Angelo’s stripped-down grooves.

Pharoah may carry the aura of a jazz legend, but brought no ego to the stage with it. He did not hesitate to pass the spotlight to his bandmates, and at times wandered over to join the audience, allowing us to intimately share the clear enthusiasm he had for his fellow musicians.

Freedom has been the theme of his career, and he embraced his status as the only one in the room with space to dance. The general air of informality brought a real warmth to the evening – those in the front row will not forget watching such a superb rhythm section from the same vantage point as the Pharoah himself.

The set closed with a smiling Pharoah taking the microphone and chanting preacher-style to the crowd, perhaps reminiscent of his earliest musical experiences performing church hymns as a child. His power to directly connect with an audience has not faded, and the overall impression was that of an old master enjoying himself immensely.

Line-up: Pharoah Sanders - tenor saxophone, William Henderson - piano, Oli Hayhurst - double bass, Gene Calderazzo - drums.

Review by George Howlett


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