After Pharoah Sanders recorded as a leader for Impulse in 1973 (Love in Us All) he recorded a number of records for different labels; his self-titled album for India Navigation stands as a high point in his development as not only a saxophonist, but as a player who sought ways of moving to a more reflective approach. These included recordings for Arista/Novus, Theresa, Dr. Jazz, and the Netherlands-based Timeless imprints, as well as co-led and other sessions as a prominent sideman. Sanders spent increasing amounts of time in Europe and Japan because he could work regularly. The period he spent on Timeless is the subject of this wonderful compilation assembled by the excellent Dopeness Galore label in Amsterdam. For starters, Dopeness Galore is not strictly a jazz label; they are just as closely allied with hip-hop and dance music culture, and issue fine 12" singles as well as compilations, in addition to supporting a number of visual artists. Definitely a label to watch in the 21st century.
Sanders recorded three albums for Timeless, a label associated with fine jazz from the U.S., the European continent, and Asia: Africa, released in 1987, Moonchild issued in 1989, and Welcome to Love, a ballads collection. The tracks compiled on Finest are not arranged chronologically (thankfully); maximum attention was given to aesthetics and dynamics as well as showing the wide range of Sanders musicality and interests in world music as well as the jazz tradition, his own forward thinking, and his relentless pursuit of a spiritual muse in his music.
The set opens with a gorgeous and beautifully edited ballad called "Moniebah" from Moonchild (where the full version appears), written by Abdullah Ibrahim, the great South African pianist. Essentially, it's a repetitive, deeply melodic, mellow, back porch piece with a killer bassline by Stafford James and some painterly pianism from William Henderson, who carries the lyric; it's accented, filled in and out as put forth by Sanders on the tenor, and given a shuffling thrust by drummer Eddie Moore and Sanders' bells. It's the perfect introduction for what comes next.
"You've Got to Have Freedom" is one of five cuts from Africa, one of Sanders finest records ever. (This is a re-recorded version of the original that first appeared on the Pharoah Sanders/Ed Kelly album in 1978.) It begins with the familiar honking cry pushed into overdrive, playing a single melody line repeatedly before the rest of the band -- pianist John Hicks, drummer Idris Muhammad, and bassist Curtis Lundy -- come charging in. The harmonic interplay between Hicks and Sanders on this cut is gorgeous; the saxophonist really gets a chance to blow with that abundant soulful expression of his as he winds through and around the solos of Hicks (who is on fire here) and the breakbeat kinetics of Muhammad; the cut is a journey in song, in sound, in joy. Over ten minutes in length, this cut was resurrected by Gilles Peterson on his BBC show, and has been issued as a 12" single for club play as well.
The other two cuts from Africa on this collection offer a portrait of Sanders at the peak of his powers. That set is represented here by the title track, a deeply moving version of mentor John Coltrane's "Naima," and the title track with its highlife melodic frame undercut by Hicks proto-Caribbean pianism. The cuts from Moonchild, one of Pharoah's most understated -- and misunderstood -- recordings, is surely one of his most moving and exploratory. Beginning with the title track with Pharoah himself singing in a style that evokes "The Creator Has a Master Plan" without getting so far outside, its tenderness and emotion are full of his trademark brand of lyricism on the soprano and tenor. This is followed by a keen reading of Horace Silver's "Moon Rays," appropriately enough, with Eddie Moore's drums expanded upon by the hand percussion of [RoviLink="MN"]Cheikh Tidiane Fall
[/RoviLink]. The set returns to Africa with two cuts, the rumbling Caribbean flavored swing that is "Origin," and the title track from that album where Sanders again shows his grasp of highlife music. The vocals in the cut are chanted in joyous shouting, and the band gets deep and soulful, letting the cut just skate out and dance in front of them. This is followed by the smoking free form of "Duo" with Muhammad (think Interstellar Space by Coltrane done with a more inherent yet unrestrained funkiness rather than free jazz drumming). The remaining three selections are all from Welcome to Love with Henderson, James, and drummer Eccleston W. Wainwright, Jr.. If you even remotely think this is going to a snore, wait until the arco (bowed) bass solo by James enters with the melody on J.J. Johnson's classic "Lament." Sanders' soprano playing is his own, but clearly shows his debt to Coltrane without attempting to hide it. He evokes it freely and digs inside the melody bringing out its subtleties with such grace and elegance it's enough to make one tear up. This is followed by "You Don't Know What Love Is" where, once again, Coltrane is evoked albeit by Sanders' keen sense of rhythm and poignancy. The program closes with his own "Bird Song," an arresting ballad played completely unaccompanied on tenor.
The individual LPs and CDs on Timeless are sometimes difficult to come by, but this beautifully mastered comp is readily available from better retailers and offers proof that even while Sanders was more or less absent on American shores, he was making some of the most compelling, focused, and creative music of his long career. This is highly recommended to those who only know the Impulse records, or are looking for that something extra by Pharoah. It is actually an easier-to grasp introduction to the artist than some of the Impulse dates, though it certainly doesn't displace them.