Thoughts on Pharoah Sanders’ Tauhid – David Grundy


By David Grundy


A/ The Evolution of Pharaoh

“What…even those resistant to the new jazz…cannot escape is the emotional energy in the new music. By contrast, nearly every jazz breakthrough in the past has been challenged as being too ‘intellectual’, too ‘European’, not ‘hot’ enough. These days, the opponents of what’s happening now seem to be charging that too much emotion is erupting in this music. And that is exploding without form. But too much emotion for whom? And what are the notions of form?”

                                                Nat Hentoff, liner notes to ‘Tauhid’

            This is not ‘Pharoah’s First’ – that’s a strange album on ESP disk, with Mr Sanders trying to uproot himself from a conventional rhythm section, making them sound leaden as he tries to blaze apart their jazz preconceptions – but I guess you could consider it his debut proper, marking a continuation of the work with Coltrane, but, perhaps more importantly, a departure into his own way of expressing a spiritual quest (indeed, of enacting it through music). It’s important to note that this was actually recorded in 1966, when Sanders was still working with Coltrane, but I think the point still stands.
            Over time, it would become more and more obvious that there was less of a sense of struggle, of ‘working through’ in Sanders’ music, than in his mentor’s – it was as if he took a step back from the brink on which Coltrane was constantly teetering, instead choosing to locate himself a little further from the edge, with brief forays back to that edge that were conducted almost in nostalgic reminiscence. Though I realize this does injustice to Pharoah’s undoubted and utter sincerity, one has to wonder at the musical gap between ‘Live in Japan’ (1966) and ‘Love will Find a Way’ (1978). In just over ten years Pharoah’s preoccupations have switched from emotion stretched to the limit, outside the confines of traditional modes of jazz expression (or indeed, of almost any pre-existing mode of musical expression at all), to a more easily pre-packaged emotionalism that exists within the admittedly pleasant strictures of ‘smooth’ strings, finger-popping electric basslines, and creamy backing vocals. His saxophone sound is still undoubtedly there – it’s not as if he lost his voice (shouted himself hoarse?!) in whatever process occurred in that 12-year period – but it’s been reduced in impact. There’s less overblowing, and when it does come, it’s as an unambiguously joyful sound without the history of struggle behind it that would make it resonate so much more. This reduction of the personal touch at the same time causes the voice to lose its universality, its appeal to the primal instincts, the very roots of human emotional perception and response/ responsiveness to sound.
            But at the time ‘Tauhid’ was released, no one was to know that in ten years they’d be hearing Pharoah playing what essentially amounts to a slightly classier variant of smooth jazz (OK, they didn’t really know what smooth jazz was at all – I suppose the nearest equivalent would be Bobby Hackett’s ‘muzak’ of the 1950s, though that was probably a little more of a niche market than smooth jazz would turn out to be). Pharoah had his reputation (or infamy) as being probably the most ‘out there’ it got – along with Ayler, let’s say, though his own music had been noticeably toned down in those last few years, through collaborations with Mary Maria and Cal Cobbs.
            Yet on ‘Tauhid’ the ‘young lion’ proved to be, if not quite a vegetarian, less of the marauding predator pulling chunks off jazz’s fleshy carcass than might have been expected. In the liner notes, Nat Hentoff stresses the lyricism of what he calls the ‘New Jazz’, which had previously been far less prominent in Sanders’ work (the searching solo that follow Coltrane on ‘Peace on Earth’ or the Village Vanguard ‘Naima’ are in marked contrast to Coltrane’s own relative calm in stating the melodies, and, notably, Sanders does not play on ‘Serenity’ from ‘Meditations’). While Hentoff puts it that Sanders’ range was “continually expanding” (with the increased lyricism presumably evidence of this), in hindsight we can see that this expansion eventually turned into limitation – the interest in beautiful, singable melodies and in African and Indian percussion and instrumentation ended up being little more than an exotic colouring for the comfort of repeating chord alternations, to which the solos on top sometimes seemed even to be subordinated.
            Lyricism in ‘Tauhid’, then: a reviewer on describes the music as “otherworldly but familiar”, and notes the paradoxical mixture of the harsh and the gentle for what is ultimately a serene effect. I’d argue that, while things may remain in the realms of paradox here, as Sanders’ work became more groove-based, the fearsome overblowing ended up becoming almost (almost) a trick effect with which to spice up otherwise mellow grooves – that complex mixing of emotions, the refusal to be defined, indeed, by terms such as ‘harsh’ and ‘gentle’, abandoned for more conventional and repetitive structures and harmonies. It’s hard to draw a line marking where exactly this happened – and I do still have a great affection even for Sanders’ ‘easier’ work – but the enjoyment I get from listening to the albums shouldn’t blind me to the fact that much of Sanders’ work is seriously flawed.

            How can this be? If you, the listener, enjoy the music, if it has an effect on you, that should surely be the judge, rather than by some false ‘objective standard’ of ‘musical quality’ – right? Well, as you can see, I can formulate my own counter-arguments to what I’ve just said, and this sort of line of reasoning often comes up when discussing free jazz. But I must admit that, despite the elation and peace I feel when listening to Pharoah on !Impulse!, there is always a slight feeling of disquiet there too – the suspicion that the music *encourages* one to switch off, to let it ‘wash over’ one as generalized vibe rather than as body-mind engagement / experience – and this is a long way from the *enhanced* consciousness offered by free jazz.
            Maybe it’s a question of ‘Balance’, to take the title of one of Sanders’ compositions: you have to take the good with the bad, the rough with the smooth. Thus, ‘The Creator has a Master Plan’ ends up repeating itself, as does ‘Hum-Allah’, while ‘Izipho Zam’ is a little episodic, but ‘Live at the East’ makes effective use of vocals and ‘Enlightenment’ is an infectious listen. ‘Black Unity’ is over-long, but the front-line of Sanders, Gary Bartz and Carlos Garnett ensures a degree of friction, and the double bass-line is indeed hypnotic; the title track of ‘Summun Bukmun Umyun’ is another so-so African-tinged groover with free patches, but the following ‘Let us Go Into the House of the Lord’ is genuinely inspired, with some absolutely sublime playing from Cecil McBee (who’s turning into one of my favourite bassists at the moment). Let’s put that bad/good formulation the other way other way round: while ‘To John’ on the rare, Japan-only ‘Love in Us All’ contains some of the most effective ‘fire music’ Sanders’ recorded under his own name (genuine free jazz rather than the hybrid styles he tended to play in at this period), ‘Love is Everywhere’ takes a small idea, attractive enough in itself, and stretches it to ridiculous lengths. There’s only so much chugging piano, willowy soprano sax, and sing-a-long vocals I can take. So, Sanders’ legacy is one I have a complex relation to; while I listen to his music a lot (more so than Coltrane these days, though that doesn’t mean I think he’s ‘better’ than Trane at all), I still find it very problematic.



·        Pharoah Sanders – alto

            and tenor sax, piccolo, voice


·        Sonny Sharrock – guitar


·        Dave Burrell – piano


·        Henry Grimes – bass


·        Roger Blank – drums


·        Nat Bettis – percussion


Recorded at the Van Gelder Studio, Engelwood Cliffs, New Jersey, 

15th November 1966.


(1) ‘Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt’

            The album opens with a collective meditation. Tympani(?), cymbal smashes, Sharrock’s new approach to post-Coltrane ballad guitar, twangy and shuddering, Burrell as chordal colourist – a group *sound* and *feel*, not the soloist as free individual striving to be the lone voice of truth (this sort of collectivism is perhaps what people disliked so much about late Coltrane – the ensemble passages on ‘Ascension’, the infamous Philharmonic Hall concert where people expected to see the ‘Classic Quartet’ and instead got an 11-piece group with the Ayler Brothers, Pharoah, Alice, etc).
            A brief Henry Grimes bass solo – again concerned with textures and sounds, with the bass’s properties as means of producing sound, with timbre and quality, with woozy arco rather than the melodic, horn-like role of La Faro or Gomez with Bill Evans.
            Now Sanders enters for the first time. His delayed entry could be said to either downplay or enhance the individual leader role I hinted at in the first paragraph: by waiting so long, his entry becomes more expected (“this album is under his name – where is he?”), more hoped for, perhaps – but at the same time the delay is a way of saying “you don’t *need* to hear me straightaway – these other guys are important too.” Playing piccolo, rather than sax, he vocalizes through the instrument while playing, as he does on ‘To Be’, the flute/piccolo duet with Coltrane on ‘Expression’. An ‘exotic’ and still striking sound, it could have become a novelty effect if Sanders had chosen to over-deploy it, but this and ‘To Be’ are the only recorded instances, I think. Needless to say, its effect is a little different to Roland Kirk’s use of similar techniques…
            Drum ritual, low-toned. Almost nine minutes in, and Grimes is about to solo again – no, instead he locks in and begins to build the famous groove that will underpin the rest of the track (I guess we’ve reached ‘Lower Egypt’). In the ‘pre-amble’, I hinted at the role this emphasis on the groove played in the diminishing quality of Sanders’ music, but this particular groove, as they say, still ‘does it for me’ every time. In itself, with the emphasis on rhythm (the players’ truly functioning as ‘rhythm section’ here!), this could be seen as part of the ‘back to Africa’ movement – although (I speak from a position of relative ignorance), with a simplified, totalizing effect that downplays the complexities of actual African tribal music (to me, ‘Bailophone Dance’ on ‘Thembi’ sounds more ‘authentic’, and certainly freer). Still, Nat Bettis, from the little I managed to find it via an internet search, was an ethnomusicologist, so presumably he wouldn’t have been happy slotting in to provide a merely facile sense of exotic colouring.
            And *Pharoah’s solo*, though brief, has such impact. For reasons of context perhaps: it’s the first time he’s let rip on sax, indeed, the first time we’ve heard him play sax at all on the album. Once again, the employment of the delaying/ waiting tactic – “that groove’s been going on for *three minutes* now – what the hell is going on?” You’re about to find out – Pharoah, first, echoing the groove line, three times playing the riff, then some repeated figure, now a note, first clean, now overblown – then, suddenly, WHAAARGH! WHAAARGH! WHAAARGH! I find it hard to restrain a physical reaction to those overblown whorfs of sound when I hear them. They seem so inevitable, so right – so truly the sound of a man as himself, as one with his instrument, as looking at his true centre, his true self. From the liner notes, his quotes resonate: “I don’t really see the horn anymore. I’m trying to see myself. And similarly, as to the sounds I get, it’s not that I’m trying to scream on my horn, I’m just trying to put all my feelings into the horn. And when you do that, the notes go away[…] Why [do] I want clusters [of notes]? So that I [can] get more feeling, more of me, into every note I play. You see, everything you do has to *mean* something, has to be more than just notes. That’s behind everything I do – trying to get more ways of getting feeling out.”
            The subdued vocals that follow, might be a little underwhelming on their own, but are perhaps a necessary coming down, back to earth, back to the groove, to melody, after that solo.

(2) ‘Japan’

            At just over three minutes, this is quite clearly an ‘interlude’ between the two long tracks that bookend it. Chugging bells and a stately promenade beat, Grimes mixing things up a little by alternating affirmative on-the-beat plucks with melodic counterpoint that goes in a slightly different direction. Sanders then sings the melody a few times, Grimes takes what I suppose one might call a short solo, then it ends. It’s really all about the melody though, which could strike one as gorgeous and elegant, though to me it’s always seemed a little twee, a Hollywoodized idea of Japan rather than the deeper engagement with world musics that Hentoff’s liners claim for it.
            Sanders’ vocal shows him embracing not the need to be ‘correct’ or ‘traditional’ (though he claims he was trying to impersonate an amalgamation of various different singers), but to be *yourself*. Certainly a different way of doing that to the ‘Lower Egypt’ solo, and few will argue that it’s as successful, but it has a pleasing, unaffected simplicity about it. From this track, one could say that Burrell and Sharrock are rather under-used on the record – or that this is just part of the collective conception. Certainly, Grimes is the most prominent solo voice after Sanders, which is somewhat unusual. Pretty much impossible to tell what Burrell’s personal voice is from ‘Tauhid’ (Sharrock has it easier because no one else played the guitar like him, so, even if it’s just a few seconds’ space he gets, you’re going to know it’s him!)

(3) (A) ‘Aum’

            Pharoah had been here before, participating in Coltrane’s ‘OM’ from 1965 (about which, see ‘Circling Om’, Simon Weill’s superb article, available on the All About Jazz website). Things aren’t nearly as terrifying here, though this is probably the freest section of the album. Lick-spit-riddling cymbals and hit-hat keep the sound tight, Grimes’ immediately perplexing it with fast free walking, Burrell adds boxy ominous chords, then Sanders comes in, scribbling away on alto while Roger Blank switches to the more forceful toms. Off-mike for a moment, we might suppose Pharoah to be in an eye-closed calisthenics of ecstasy; he roils up and down, his tone vocal and gruff (though not as powerful as on tenor). Sawing, see-sawing up and down in motions that lead to a *strain* for volume and air, at the end, of those long notes held before the next darting rally. Highest in the mix behind the sax are the drums – the recording isn’t great (they really should release a new mix of the album), but your ear can just about pick up Sonny Sharrock raging behind the Pharoah. Imagine the sonic experience if this had been better recorded! These guys truly had power behind their sound, it was *frightening* to the jazz establishment, to the critics, the guardians of ‘good taste’ and Jim Crow ‘get in line Nigger’ custodianship of a music they didn’t really understand.

(B) ‘Venus’

            Sounds like they suddenly turned Sharrock up in the mix because they thought he was going to solo – as it is, Pharoah comes back in almost immediately, on tenor, but we do get to hear a precious few seconds of that guitar squall. Sanders’ tone just *radiates* spirituality – later on, perhaps he traded on that a bit too much (by playing even just melodies he could convince), but here the utter sincerity is captivating, the vitality of being and the living of life in sound. Shakers and cymbals, strummed repeated bass notes and finally piano runs that prefigure Lonnie Liston Smith’s harp-like arpeggios on ‘Hum-Allah’. One might also note that ‘Aum/Venus/Capricorn Rising’ has the concision ‘Hum-Allah’ lacks. The three-part structure focuses things, prevents over-reliance on just one groove, one vibe. Sanders’ playing of the melody, and variants on it, are the main focus here; either Sharrock’s not playing, or he’s just really undermiked – I guess guitar in avant-jazz wasn’t really too common at the time; maybe producer Bob Theile just didn’t know how to deal with it.

(C) ‘Capricorn Rising’

            ‘Capricorn Rising’ seems to be a variation on the melody of ‘Venus’, no less sublime. It’s as if Pharoah taps into this stream of melody which is that of the universe – he takes a little fragment, puts it in bar lines, turns it into a melody of its own – self-sufficient, but part of a greater whole. And I guess that’s the essence of jazz improvisation too – endless variation, and sometimes that reality can include what we’d term noise, fearsome sounds of overblown shrieks – all part of Pharoah’s ‘Journey to the One’. Earth-bound for transcendence, Pharoah’s playing here acknowledges difficulty and struggle; indeed, it *incorporates* them into lyricism, rather than retreating into the slightly drippy peace-and-love sentiment, as with ‘The Creator Has a Masterplan.’

            So, where does that love ‘Tauhid’ as a whole? Well, it shows that, for all their reputations, free jazzers wrote damn good tunes, often better than the mainstream guys’ – check out Frank Wright’s ‘Kevin My Dear Son’ or ‘Shouting the Blues’ for other examples. It also ends too soon –  an incomplete record. Obvious highlights – the ‘Lower Egypt’ solo, the melodic rhapsody of ‘Venus’ and ‘Capricorn Rising’ – remain flashes that never quite develop, and the lack of any real extended free jazz purification /catharsis feels like a missed opportunity (in particular, I can’t help wishing we’d heard more of Sonny Sharrock). It was this uncertainty with *form* that was the major problem in Sanders’ career, I think – not that I’m suggesting he should have tethered himself down more to the sort of structures/strictures the critics accused him of abandoning, but the solutions he came up with were often rather simplistic, aiming for coherence and instead getting a too broad-brush approach that tended to emphasize mood and vibe over detail and engagement.


Originally published at   



One response to “Thoughts on Pharoah Sanders’ Tauhid – David Grundy

  1. Pharoah sings the tune identified as “Japan” on “Tauhid” (recorded in Japan Nov. 15th, ’66), and Albert Ayler sings the same piece in an almost identical way (!) on “Lorrach, Paris 1966” 6,OOO miles away and a few days earlier (recorded Nov. 7th & 13th, ’66). It’s uncanny…

    That melody is actually a fairly well-known Japanese folk tune, though Pharoah is given a composer credit for it on “Tauhid.”

    Interesting material about the greatly loved, admired, and missed Sonny Sharrock, including a little story of Sonny singing “Tauhid” many years later at the Knitting Factory (off-stage): (scroll down and click on the link with Sonny’s name).

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