Pharoah Sanders: 1977 Revisited
Pierre Crépon

Pharoah Sanders, Antwerp 1977 © 2024 Gérard Rouy

This article extends liner notes written for the Luaka Bop reissue of Pharoah Sanders’ Pharoah, a box set also including the previously unreleased Harvest Time Live 1977.

As Pharoah Sanders was launching into his first proper tour of Europe in August 1977, Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” was exiting the Billboard charts. An abbreviated version of a monster groove filling an LP side, the single was “the closest I was going to get to doing disco,” Gaye once told Musician magazine. A connection between Sanders, a musician who could not escape the “free jazz apostle” label, and Gaye, the soul superstar, might have seemed completely unrelated, but did tenuously exist. On his return to the US, Sanders was to record a new album, Love Will Find a Way, an album that contained a cover of the Gaye hit.

Quite likely, the idea came from a Sanders collaborator who was not there with him in Europe: drummer Norman Connors. After he joined Sanders’ regular band in 1971, when he was still an unknown jazz player from Philadelphia, things changed significantly for Connors. In the intervening few years, he firmly engaged in a crossover direction with which he found sizable success, and he started to work as a producer.

Right before leaving for Europe, Sanders made a brief guest appearance at the Lincoln Center with a group led by Connors. According to Variety, it marked the saxophonist’s “return to the concert stage.” The New York concert stage would have been more accurate, as Sanders had remained busy elsewhere in the country, even if his absence from New York and from recording studios had led some to believe his career had hit a standstill. In July and August, other appearances with the Connors group took place in Chicago or Boston.

Following intense chart action in 1976, Connors had recently obtained a gold plaque for 500,000 units sold of his You Are My Starship, an LP that ended with a cover of Sanders’ biggest success, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” The final push for the album’s sales had been provided in early 1977 by the release of its third single, “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” a cover of a song made into a hit by the Stylistics and the breakthrough for its featured vocalist, Phyllis Hyman.

Pharoah Sanders, Hayes Burnett; Jazz Middleheim, August 1977 © 2024 Guy Stevens

During his European tour, Sanders discussed his upcoming album. “I’m going to make a record for Arista now; it’s going to be a Norman Connors production, with violins and an electric rhythm section and everything,” he told Dutch journalist Bert Vuijsje. “We agreed that we will try to maintain my own sound, but with a different rhythm. I agreed because I had nothing else to do and because I could use the money.” As he explained to Vuijsje, Sanders considered part of the album he had made the year before for India Navigation, Pharoah, as his own attempt at crossover. Although he did base the track on a different rhythm – which he termed “rock” – the version of “Love Will Find a Way” heard there had none of the glossy studio polish that characterized Connors’ efforts and could yield true commercial appeal. Sanders considered his attempt as unsuccessful but he hung on to the material.

During his summer 1977 European dates, sung by Sanders himself, the lyrics of “Love Will Find a Way” unexpectedly replaced the words Leon Thomas once put to “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” The well-known opening saxophone riff provoked bursts of applause, before an immediate change of climate threw listeners off. The piece was now carried by a piano vamp rather than by the bass, and Sanders added yet more lyrics.

Sung by Connors and Phyllis Hyman, it would become another, separate piece on his forthcoming Arista album: “Everything I Have Is Good.” “The Creator,” a composition that had been a signpost in jazz’s 1960s outer expansion was being used as a vehicle to work out something else.

Shortly after his return to the US, Sanders headed to Kendun Recorders in Burbank, just outside Los Angeles, to cut his crossover effort. Love Will Find a Way’s cover does not provide any date, but available evidence suggests the sessions were held in late September 1977, just a few weeks after the end of Sanders’ European tour. Trumpeter Chuck Mangione was making a soundtrack in an adjoining studio. “When I was with Chuck and we were recording the music for the movie that’s coming up, The Children of Sanchez, right across the hall there was Pharoah Sanders doing a disco album,” trumpeter Jeff Tyzik once told Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle. “Now if that isn’t a departure, what is? Talk about someone who was playing so abstract and way out, and now he’s playing a different thing.”

The disco characterization would be up for debate. If Marvin Gaye did not consider “Got to Give It Up” as actual disco, Sanders’ mechanistic, half-hearted cover could hardly qualify. This low point in the album stood next to more successful cuts such as “Love Is Here,” where two Sanders solos framed Phyllis Hyman vocals carrying the track. Sanders appeared to be the featured soloist on a Norman Connors crossover production rather than as a masterminding force on an album wrapped in enough gloss and studio patina to make sure the jazz world would not welcome it with open arms.

“Our friend Mr. Sanders has now joined the assembly line,” read the Down Beat review, before the term “black Muzak” was dropped. “One wistfully recalls his dreamily eloquent Impulse material, his quasi-atonal mystical musings, which in the light of their early chronology, predated our latter day Lonnie Liston Smith mush, and, quite frankly blazed new trails. Vistas of melodic chaos were paved.” In a 1978 interview with the Kingsport Times-News, Connors acknowledged that one could hear a common feeling in Smith’s music and in his own, a feeling traceable to Sanders.

After a decade as a manifest force in jazz, it was indeed true that Sanders’ influence could be considered as substantial. Not only that, but it also took multiple forms. Smith and Connors had been colleagues in Sanders’ band. Something he had put out in the world with them then had kept on evolving, and now it was coming back to him. Whatever one could think of the results, they could not be said to belong to an entirely alien universe.

Love Will Find a Way did chart higher than any other Sanders album. Much of what he had played during his preceding European tour had had a transitory quality. Threads were being worked out, it seemed, but it turned out that, as often with Sanders, there was no actual endpoint in sight. Just a few years later, Sanders already struggled to remember the title of his Arista album, which he framed as a one-shot opportunity. “Something's better than nothing,” he said.


© 2024 Pierre Crépon


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