During the seventies and early eighties, Sanders recorded and played in a more commercial vein. There were a couple of reasons for his attempts at commercialism. The climate of jazz at that time was dominated by either the fusion style of the Headhunters and Weather Report, or the syrupy foundation of smooth jazz cemented by George Benson's "Breezin'". Moreover, Sanders had little of the empathy for other saxophonists that Coltrane showed him. In recent years he's been going back to his roots, incorporating polyrhythmic patterns, African percussion, chimes and bells into his music. His featured appearance on the excellent new album with Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio, "Africa N'Da Blues" (Delmark), is an inspired pairing. El'Zabar, pianist/multi-reedist Ari Brown, and bassist Malachi Favors Moghustat have looked back to the timeless music of Africa to further their own artistic visions- collective or separate- since the beginning of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) thirty-five years ago. The Ritual Trio is a fine example of Favors' motto for the Art Ensemble of Chicago and AACM: "Ancient to the Future".
Still, Sanders and his Coltrane pedigree were the main reasons that fans flocked to HotHouse, the ubiquitous Chicago center for international performance and exhibition, Saturday night. In performance to celebrate the release of "Africa N'Da Blues", Sanders was greeted with enthusiasm and a little curiosity from a sardine-tight packed house. The Joseph Bowie composition "Ka' Real" began with a wonderful bop tempo set by El'Zabar on trap drums and Favors on bass. Sanders laid a mournful melody on the crowd. Then he deconstructed the song into an exploration of growls, shrieks, hollering into the bell of his sax, and playing notes on his saxophone without blowing into his mouthpiece. This created an ethereal tone that hushed the crowd.
The song "Africanos/Latinos" was a nice, mid-tempo number given an added Latin flair with El'Zabar's conga playing and Sanders' restrained passages. But the song was almost wrecked by the simple-minded poetry of guest vocalist Susana Sandoval. Her dual purpose onstage seemed simply to sway from side to side and mumble alternating English and Spanish into a microphone. Thankfully, Sandoval left the stage after the song ended.
The Ritual Trio was more than able to keep the crowd in hot with a cover of Coltrane's "Miles' Mode". Favors bowed with fervor on bass throughout the bridge of the song. Brown, Favors, and El'Zabar played off each other like the world class musicians they are.
The show ended with a thirty minute jam on "I Got the Blues". Sanders hammed it up on this number. He traded sax solos with Brown, guest saxist Ernest Dawkins (New Horizons ensemble, Ethnic Heritage Ensemble), and a free-scatting El'Zabar. A comment written for the benefit of passers-by on one of the fogged-up windows at HotHouse summed up one listener's opinion: "You're missing a great show!"
Indeed, Sanders surpassed the crowd's reasons for braving the cold Saturday night. He wholly embraced the "Ancient to the Future" concept, firing up the audience. Somewhere in the ether, John Coltrane was smiling.