Pharoah Sanders is a figure that is hard to get a hold on. Best known for his work with John Coltrane in the last years of that legend's life, Sanders was one of the first to make sounds that were so antagonistic, so angry, and so against the grain of what audiences, critics, and many musicians thought music was supposed to be that the remains scorned by many over 30 years later.
Anybody who recognizes that there can be great beauty in portraying the not so pleasant aspects of life will find their way to Sanders¹ music sooner or later with sooner being far more likely than later- but the random selection of a disc bearing his name might bear surprises. Like most true artists, Sanders has not always produced the expected. His solo recordings have included forays into straight bebop, world beat and even smooth jazz. Sanders¹ best known work is probably the hypnotic Karma. The 1969 recording has plenty of soul and easy to gently sway to. His bebop recordings have generally been decent although not exceptional but his world beat recordings have left much to be desired. 1998s Save our Children is a particularly telling example. The music is far too unfocused to be pop but far too unimaginative to be good jazz. It stands at this unfortunate crossroads as something that might sound good in theory but not to the ears.
Spirits is notable because many of the disparate elements listed above are present yet the disc does not suffer as a result. The recording does not seem unfocused or contrived. The elements are all noticeable but they work as a whole. Many sections have a peaceful, restful quality that is as soothing as relaxing as can be. Listeners inclined to spiritualism, as is Sanders, are likely to hear sounds that seem in tune with a higher power. At the same time, Spirits is not wanting for the sonic blasts of rage that aren't welcome in polite company. Most impressively Sanders and his percussionist compatriots Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph show a great deal of forethought with the material. A dramatic sense of flair is present and the more excited moments gain importance because the follow periods of calm.
Sanders, Drake, and Rudolph recorded Spirits during a 1998 concert the booklet does not give any more specifics with regard to time or place- and the disc certainly has a live feeling to it. There are 10 tracks on the disc, all three performers receive credit for each composition, but the roughly 60 and a half minutes of music could easily be heard as one long work or as 4 or 5 sections of varying lengths. The first track is slow moving journey called "Sunrise." It lasts for a little over 19 minutes and features calmly evocative playing from Sanders who is confident enough to throw in an occasional harsh jab while at other times playing a straight and soothing melody. The percussion work of Drake and Rudolph alternates between complementing Sanders and working with the saxophonist to create a layered and textured sound that might be incomprehensible if dissected too much. There is no clear dichotomy between the next two tracks as they blend in with one another. In both, interlocking rhythms from the two percussionists egg Sanders on from soulful but predictable playing to the brash noise that he earned a reputation for while playing with Coltrane.
Tracks 4 through 8 form the longest arc and feature compelling call and responses between Drake and Rudolph as well as some growls from Sanders who, in addition to his trusty saxophone, takes up the wooden flute. The use of African Chants and various drums gives the music an "international" flair that is not at all at odds with the screams and other more avant touches. The music comes to a dramatic end with a furious burst from what Rudolph on the hand drums. The next two tracks are short and have the effect of cooling down listeners after what has come before. The playing on both is superb and the short closer is appropriately titled "Sunset" since it mirrors the opener.
The CD's booklet includes some brief notes Musharef Khan, which appear in quotes and thus look as if they might come from another source although none is listed. The comments don't directly relate to the music on the disc or the players involved but are instead a polemic for appreciation and against criticism, which the author identifies as being a trend in Western societies. There is hardly enough room in this review for a thorough discussion of this matter but some brief comments are in order. It is hard to reconcile a society full of critics with what bassist Dominic Duval correctly decries as "the constant bombardment of mediocrity from all directions in our art, politics and every-day life." And so perhaps what Khan identifies as criticism is actually cynicism. Cynicism does impede appreciation but it has an equally toxic effect on criticism since the aim of criticism is not to destroy but rather to place works in the proper context and to explain the difference between both the good and bad and the good and the better. Appreciation can exist without criticism and sometimes should- but any criticism worthy of the name necessitates appreciation.
Still in keeping with the spirit -pun sort of intended- of Khan's comments, this review has aimed to showcase the strengths and beauty of this music and not to point out any minor faults that might exist. My hope is to have done this adequately enough so as to prompt readers check out this disc.