The acoustics at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral are superb. Constructed in 1928, Grace, the nation’s largest Episcopalian cathedral, was was finished only in 1964. Flags of many countries adorn the ceiling, and some of its gold-leaf paintings, when viewed from a distance, would not be out of place in a Buddhist temple. Solo jazz concerts at Grace are something of a tradition. Mavis Staples has performed here, and duos such as saxophonist Harold Lloyd with tabla percussionist Zakir Hussain, and saxophonists Joe Lovano and Greg Osby have also played.
Performing unaccompanied is a difficult task for any horn player to pull off, but Pharoah has the chops to do it. Born Ferrell Sanders, Pharoah was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and moved to Oakland after high school. In 1962 he joined the renowned Sun Ra's Arkestra. Sun Ra - famous for his Egyptian-style costuming and wild sound - christened him "Pharoah," a natural moniker given the band’s eclectic "ancient Egypt" bent and Pharoah’s spiritual sound.
These days, Pharoah is 65 and his flat-top styled hair and trim goatee have turned to grey, but he still commands an immense stage presence. He is accompanied on this occasion by his longtime pianist William Henderson whose spare accompaniment is light on the keys as if he is a low-key version of McCoy Tyner, the famous pianist who was in John Coltrane’s legendary quartet. Henderson’s spare, soft, melodic, and flowing playing complements Pharoah perfectly.
After a melodic "Feeling Good," Pharoah re-enters with the piercing tenor sound marking the beginning of John Coltrane’s dramatic composition "After The Rain." The signature Coltrane composition "Giant Steps," with its distinctive rhythms, follows. Then we hear "Save Our Children," a Pharoah original which brings the hour-long set to a close.
The second set commences with "Welcome," and Pharoah initiates the second number "Tina," by clapping his hands and inviting the audience join in. Pharoah then wanders the hall and then lets loose a bit before ending with what sounds like a train whistle. The meditative "Shukuru" is followed by the Coltrane classic "Naima," named after Trane’s wife. The flowing sax of "The Creator Has a Master Plan," Pharoah’s most famous composition, ends the evening, fifty minutes after the second set began. Pharoah concludes with some final bursts on his tenor before silently fingering his sax keys open and shut, an effect which leaves a ghostly echo reverberating through the basilica.