As an ice-cold rain fell yesterday in New York, I reached for Welcome to Love, a 1990 album by Pharoah Sanders that I hadn't heard in a few years. The Sphinx-like tenor saxophonist is best known for his spiritual and avant-garde jazz recordings of the 1960s and 1970s, most notably Karma, which includes the dazzling 32-minute-plus The Creator Has a Master Plan. But the album I pulled loose features a slightly different Sanders. On Welcome to Love, the saxophonist plays straight-up jazz, and the result is a gorgeous collection of ballads.
Many jazz fans are unaware that Sanders has enormous depth in traditional jazz and that he's a superior executor of jazz standards on both tenor and soprano saxophones. There are shades of late-period John Coltrane [pictured] in Sanders' tone, to be sure. But Sanders also has a delicate, sensitive touch that Coltrane lacked or lost during his tumultuous Impulse years.
Farrell Sanders was born in 1940 in Little Rock, Ark., and started on the clarinet before switching to the tenor sax in high school. He began playing professionally in the San Francisco Bay area, and moved to New York in 1962, just as the spiritual jazz movement initiated by Yusef Lateef in the mid-1950s began merging with free jazz. Nicknamed Pharoah by keyboardist Sun Ra (complete with the transposed "o" and "a"), Sanders recorded more than 10 studio and live albums with John Coltrane over two years, starting with Ascension in 1965.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Sanders continued to pioneer spiritual jazz, weaving in dance themes of the time. But by the 1990s, with CDs gaining in popularity, hard bop came back into vogue as long out-of-print LPs from the 1950s were reissued en masse in the new format. Sanders found his spiritual style less in demand, and work opportunities slowed.
Known for his snowy white Egyptian-style beard, Sanders spent this period recording in New York, touring in Europe, and playing in the San Francisco Bay area. Today, Sanders continues to perform and record in his introspective spiritual style, which once again has become popular among listeners, especially younger ones. Sanders is appearing this week in New York at Iridium.
Welcome to Love is one of Sanders' finest albums from his re-thinking period. Recorded in Yerres, France, in 1990, the album is comprised of 10 tracks, seven of them standards, and all are taken at ballad tempo. In many ways, the album is a tribute to Coltrane's Ballads album of 1961. Here, you can feel Sanders' enormous self-reflection and homesickness. Sanders blows thoughtful, moody lines on each ballad, including Say It (Over and Over Again), Polka Dots and Moonbeams and Nancy With the Laughing Face.
The last track recorded on this session, Moonlight in Vermont, is perhaps the most interesting ballad choice. Here, Sanders delivers a beautiful rendition that's full of love and passion for this melody-rich song. You'd think Sanders taking on this classic might result in performance overkill, or perhaps he'd miss the mark. Not a chance. Instead, Sanders offers a deliberate interpretation, juxtaposing the feel of Africa with the song's Hallmark-card, New England imagery.
Coltrane never recorded Moonlight in Vermont, but through Sanders you get to hear how Coltrane might have approached the ballad. Most important, dig Sanders' wind-down and final phrases at the tail end. The soft, free jazz tags that he adds conjures up images of geese scattering from a frozen field.
Sanders' long-time pianist William Henderson [pictured] complements the saxophonist perfectly throughout with a wide, rolling style that channels McCoy Tyner. This keyboard tribute is particularly evident on The Nearness of You. [Photo by Lisa Haskins]
Welcome to Love is an ideal introduction to Sanders and a stepping-stone to the saxophonist's more inventive, spiritual pieces. If you're more familiar with Sanders' spiritual avant-garde works and not aware of this one, you'll be plenty surprised. Either way, you'll certainly appreciate Sanders' fabulous sound.
JazzWax tracks: Pharoah Sanders' Welcome to Love was issued twice. I'm not sure why, or why the song tracks on each are slightly different. There are pros and cons to each. For example, the one that's at iTunes does not include Moonlight in Vermont. The earlier CD (pictured at left) is available at Amazon here and includes Moonlight in Vermont. But it's missing several of the tracks at iTunes. My suggestion is to sample a few tracks at iTunes. If you like it, buy the CD at left from an independent seller for about $8. Then download the missing tracks off the iTunes version.
JazzWax video clip: For a taste of Sanders, here he is playing Thembi with alto saxophonist David Sanborn on Sanborn's short-lived TV show in the mid-1980s: