Built like light

The legendary saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders died yesterday. He was 81 years old and lived in L.A.

Sanders appeared on the scene as a sideman for John Coltrane, whose 96th birthday would have been Friday. When Coltrane passed away in 1967, Sanders soldiered on, fronting his own combos. The sounds he produced pushed the limits of jazz, to say the least. Truth be told, they pushed the limits of music.

It was not for everyone. Usually it morphed into complete chaos for a while, then fell back into something peaceful and melodic. Sanders was a bit of a mystic. He was way out there.

He was still playing in his last years. He came to Portland a few times toward the end. One unforgettable appearance was next to Coltrane's son, Ravi, with whom Sanders played the music of Ravi's mother, the late Alice Coltrane. She had been on a similar wavelength to Pharaoh's; they had collaborated. There was a lot of harp that night, and a lot of other-worldliness.

The last time I saw Pharaoh play, you could tell that a long and fruitful life was winding down. He would sit out for long stretches and let the young people in his band go at it. The kids seemed to be having a good time. Heck, they were on stage with Pharaoh Sanders. 

Then the old man with the white beard would rise from his chair, walk up to microphone, and start to blow. It was like lightning struck. The hair on your body stood up all by itself. It was always like that with him.

I'm not going to tell you that I fully understood what he was doing. The older I get, the more sense it makes to me, but I'm still just getting a faint glimmer. I'm not sure even he grasped it all. But he was, and I suspect still is, in touch with something big.


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