Monday, November 21, 2005

Pharoah's Elevation

impulse! AS-9261

Recorded September 1973

1. Elevation
2. Greeting to Saud (Brother McCoy Tyner)
3. Ore-Se-Rere
4. The Gathering
5. Spiritual Blessing


PHAROAH SANDERS; tenor sax, soprano sax, bells, shaker, percussion, vocal
JOE BONNER; piano, harmonium, cow horn, wood flute, percussion, vocal
CALVIN HILL; bass, tamboura, vocal
LAWRENCE KILLIAN; bell tree, congas, percussion, vocal
JIMMY HOPPS; percussion
KENNETH NASH; percussion
JOHN BLUE; percussion, vocal
MICHAEL CARVIN; drums, percussion, vocal

The thing that constantly amazes me about Pharoah Sanders is just how many great records he put out - and how obscure some of them are. Hardly a day goes by without me finding yet another record by him that I've never heard of. That's exactly what happened with this album, which has recently been reissued on CD by Verve as part of their ongoing rerelease program of classic impulse! recordings. The sound of the CD is lovely, but they have skimped a bit on the packaging, unfortunately - no more lovingly assembled gatefolds with booklets replicating the original liner notes and photographs, just a few words on the back and some lineups. Still, you only have to listen, and you can imagine the scene in the studio. Or should I say on stage, as much of this album was recorded live - indeed tracks 1 and 3-5 were recorded live at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles on the 7th and 9th September 1973. Track 2 was recorded a few days later in the studio.

The title track is another of Pharoah's finest, and is a piece of funky free jazz in the vein of 'The Creator has a Master Plan' or 'Black Unity'. In fact, like those tracks, it once again borrows heavily from John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' for it's main theme. This gets passed around and reinterpreted by the whole band, the intensity increasing all the time, until around the 6 minute mark when all hell breaks loose. Literally. It's a squall of noise, with a man screaming. You feel as if you've reached some kind of barrier that you have to break through - and you do, to a fantastic place where the whole band with the exception of Calvin Hill have laid down their instruments, picked up the first pieces of percussion they could lay their hands on, and started playing in a weird, polyrythmic, very free percussion and bass 'solo' which winds on for several minutes before Pharoah's horn brings you back to the real world. The effect is simply stunning on record. I can only dream about how amazing it must have sounded in performance.

'Greeting to Saud' is in a more meditative vein, and the uplifting 'Ore-Se-Rere' prepares you well for the album's other treat, 'The Gathering'. It's sharp edged and highly melodic piano intro gives no hint of the sonic mayhem that is to come. Somewhere around 4:30 there is a subtle shift in style towards free improvisation, which culminates in some of the most intense, honking, squealing playing of Pharoah's career, suitably backed up by another display of intense power from Joe Bonner's piano. Bonner's is another obscure name, but his playing here is first class - at turns precise and melodic, at times modal, and at others frighteningly intense. Again, bass and percussion follow the freedom, with Calvin Hill's playing being similarly inspired as the title track. He puts me very much in mind of Cecil McBee, another compatriot of Sanders from his days playing with Alice Coltrane. Who comes to mind when listening to the closing 'Spiritual Blessing', with it's drone provided, i think by the harmonium playing of Bonner and it's generally blissed-out mood.

It's worth checking out allmusic's review of this album, if only for their inspired invention of the verb "to choogle", which appears to mean "to head off on one in a free jazz style". Also of note is this sessionography of what Sanders was up to in 1973 (and other years, for that matter). These 7th-9th September sessions have obviously been recorded for this album to exist - how about someone releasing the 48-minute version of 'Elevation'? Go on, impulse!, I dare you!

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