Friday, July 06, 2012

CD Review- Pharoah Sanders - In the Beginning 1963-1964

Pharoah Sanders
In the Beginning 1963-1964

Before Mosaic started their three-disc Mosaic Select series, they released a few boxsets that pushed the limits of what belonged in a deluxe set. Combining Lennie Tristano sessions with those by his students Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh kind of made sense, as did the Vee Jay sessions by Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter (which only intersected on one album). Peggy Lee and June Christie seemed to be a set of convenience: "Two girl singers, both on Capitol!"

ESP's retrospective of pre-Impulse! works by tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders contains an interesting batch of music, as well as some interview snippets throughout. But most of the music in the box has been readily available in reissued form for quite some time - mostly by the reactivated label itself. Considering that half the four-disc collection is taken up by performances by the Sun Ra Arkestra (which included Sanders) and that many of the interviews don't deal with this boxset's main subject, it has a rather thrown-together feeling. And while it provides a great introduction to both the saxophonist and the Saturn expatriate for whom he played, a set like this is geared more towards the longtime collectors than the novices.

Sanders is best known for his searing tenor work that came to fruition during his time with John Coltrane's quintet, from 1965 until Coltrane's death two years later. But Sanders was far from one-dimensional as the early sessions with Don Cherry and Paul Bley reveal on the first disc. A brief interview with Sanders (like all the interviews, no date is given) begins the set, setting the scene for his arrival in New York. The Cherry session comes from 1963 (possibly a year later) and includes bassist David Izenzon (who would soon join Cherry's former bandleader Ornette Coleman), drummer J.C. Moses (who played with the cornetist in the New York Contemporary Five) and pianist Joe Scianni.

The music feels loose with simple composed structures, much like Coleman and also like the compositions Cherry recorded with Blue Note (and that have appeared on live discs released after the fact by ESP). Sanders had yet to tap into the frenzy of his later work and favors a tone very much like Coltrane, though his melodic choices don't make him a copycat. Only three different compositions come from this set, two have alternate takes which vary from each other. Another track credited as Thelonious Monk medley finds Cherry nooldling at the piano on four Monk melodies. Considering that Izenzon rambles softly on top of them, it's likely this track came from during downtime between takes while the tape was rolling.

The session is followed by four minutes of an interview with Don Cherry talking about... Ornette Coleman. Pianist Paul Bley follows with a few minutes of discussion of his instrument's changing role as the avant garde movement took root. Yes, these are both interesting interviews but this has nothing to do with Pharoah Sanders or his work with either of these musicians.

The 1964 Bley session also features just three compositions (all by Carla Bley), again with two alternate takes. With Paul Motian on drums and Izenzon in the bass chair again, it presents an interesting take on this music, Sanders virtually predicting a direction that his future leader would be taking over the next year. It would have been interesting if this quartet had released a whole album. Instead, Bley would re-record two of these a few months later in a session that included Marshall Allen from the Sun Ra Arkestra.

Pharoah's First, Sanders' debut and sole release on ESP during their original run, makes up the bulk of disc two. The two 20-plus minute tracks have been maligned for placing the wild tenor in a more straightforward setting, but the saxophonist doesn't exactly sound confined. If anything he might have been better off skimming a few minutes of solos off both tracks. Still, this album can be found in the ESP catalog on its own.

Three years ago, ESP released Sun Ra featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold, a recording from the Four Days in December concert series staged by the Jazz Composers Orchestra in the final days of 1964 which featured many of the musicians moving in a newer, freer direction. Half the album had been released by Ra's Saturn label, while the first five tracks were new to the public on that release. In the Beginning clarifies that the unreleased tracks actually came from the December 30 performance, while the remainder were recorded the next day, along with an additional 25 minutes of outer space wildness.

The sound quality on both discs is on the quiet side - which is not the case with the 2009 release - and not just because one set is mono and the other stereo. While there are numerous live recordings of the Arkestra, this one might not have much appeal beyond the diehard collector. Sanders, who supposedly made the transition from birthname Farrell to "Pharoah" courtesy of Sun Ra, can be heard blowing his trademark overtones but he doesn't get a lot of solo space.

Disc four is bookended by more interviews, this time with Sun Ra himself as well as Sanders. The latter begins that disc with a dissertation about how major labels neglected him, which may be more entertaining than accurate. He later adds a recollection of John Coltrane, though nothing about Sanders. The saxophonist closes his disc, sounding relaxed and willing to talk about meeting Coltrane, which draws a chuckle from the normally staid Sanders. Here, as he has in the various interview segments, he speaks about his music not as a revolutionary but as someone who would interesting in expressing beauty and art in his work.

Considering how much of this music is in print in other formats, it might have been more interesting to release the music on disc one in tandem with the unedited interviews. As it stands In the Beginning loses some focus and comes off as a bit of a shoddy collection.

No comments: