Album review

Pharoah Sanders Quartet – ‘Live At Fabrik Hamburg 1980’

Pharoah Sanders Quartet – Live At Fabrik Hamburg 1980

(NDR Kultur D77123 – CD/2LP review by Mark McKergow)

Pharoah Sanders leads a fine quartet through some of his best loved tunes in this exciting archive concert recording. The music ranges from fiery to mellifluous with extended takes and plenty of solo space.

Tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who died in September 2022 aged 81, was one of the most distinctive voices in modern jazz. Hailing from Little Rock, Arkansas as Ferrell Sanders he stepped onto the jazz ladder with Sun Ra who gave him his distinctive name. He came to prominence as part of John Coltrane’s final groups in the mid 1960s and was part of the ‘New Thing’ free-jazz movement centred on the Impulse label. The 1970s saw him step up as a band leader and find his own style combining visceral shrieks, ‘speaking in tongues’ sheets of sound and a great and somewhat unexpected facility with lush ballads.

In early 1980 Sanders released Journey To The One, a mid-career highlight double LP which achieved success with critics and audiences alike.  Live At Fabrik Hamburg 1980 was recorded on 6th June and sees Sanders effectively ‘touring the album’; four out of the five tracks here are extended versions. The band featured John Hicks (piano) and Idris Muhammed (drums) fresh from the sessions. They are joined on double bass by Curtis Lundy who takes over the role from Ray Drummond.  

NDR have been releasing archive gig recordings from the Fabrik venue for some time. A former machine factory in the Altona district of Hamburg, it started in 1976 and is still very much alive today, having hosted musicians from Tangerine Dream to Tanita Tikaram. This is the oldest performance yet to be released, the sound is good and unmistakeably live with a little in-the-room reverb adding to the atmosphere.

We are pitched straight into You Gotta Have Freedom, a real Sanders signature piece which became a hit with jazz dance enthusiasts in the later 1980s.  Hicks starts reeling off piano licks with Sanders joining in with shrieking polytonics before stating the simple melody line. The tempo is a little up from the studio version and the solos a bit more ‘out there’, neither of which comes as a surprise and adds to the fun of the reinterpretations. Lundy’s bass is high in the mix at the start but settles down as the 18 minutes progress (nearly three times the length of the studio version).  

John Hicks must be one of the most recorded jazz musicians ever. A part of Sanders’ very first band in the early 1960s, Hicks rose to prominence with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and was in great demand. Listings show him with well over 50 albums as a leader, with more than 150 in sideman roles (as here).  All the musicians get more solo space in this concert setting, and Hicks is never less than engaging as he steams along, swerving from comping with a touch of McCoy Tyner in his big left hand chords to piledriving assaults on the keyboard.

Dr Pitt takes a slightly similar modal route with more extended sax ands piano soloing over its twenty minutes. Idris Muhammad gets in on the act with great force and takes a well-sculpted solo himself, to the obvious appreciation of the audience. Rodgers and Hart’s It’s Easy To Remember is a fine contrast, a ballad taken at modest pace (though Hicks can’t resist doubling the feel in his solo and then doubling it again for good measure). Curtis Landy’s bass solo, by contrast, is peaceful and reflective.

The Creator Has A Masterplan, released in 1969, was always Sanders signature tune, an early piece of spiritual jazz. This version is much shorter than the 32 minute original and Sanders uses it to introduce the band before bringing the set to an official close. There is an encore – Greetings To Idris, with its majestic tenor theme, another romping solo from Hicks and a quiet finish to send us into the night.  This is a super snapshot of a great band on top form.

Link: Buy the CD (release date 24 March)

Categories: Album review, Reviews

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