PHAROAH SANDERS — Karma (review)

PHAROAH SANDERS — Karma album cover Album · 1969 · Avant-Garde Jazz Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
Pharoah Sanders might well be the king (or pharaoh, in this case) of what I like to call "hippie jazz". I refer hippie jazz to the music that was inspired by John Coltrane's vision of religions and God, this music has the feel, and sometimes lyrics, expressing peace and love in the earth. Other supporters of this movement would be Alice Coltrane, Lonnie Liston Smith, Leon Thomas, among other like-minded musicians.

When John Coltrane added Pharoah to his classic quartet by 1965, Sanders was seen as either a potentially great avant-garde saxophonists or simply an ear-ache, with his extensive appliance of shrieks.

With the death of Trane, Sanders went solo and his playing matured with each new release, although still using the shrieks as a method to express ecstasy in the music, it is clear that Pharoah became a great unique tenor saxophonist, and not only that, his compositions were also unique and praised by the avant-garde jazz audience.

It is in Karma, released in 1969, where Pharoah’s full potential is shown in, and in my opinion this is his magnum opus, and one of the high points of the avant-garde movement.

The album has only two compositions, a 32 minute piece called ‘The Creator Has a Masterplan’ and a rather short in comparison tune called ‘Colors’. It is obvious that it is the big piece the central part of the album, and what makes this Pharoah’s greatest album.

‘The Creator Has a Masterplan’ can be considered as a continuation to Coltrane’s masterpiece ‘A Love Supreme’, both have that simple, hypnotizing bass line (although made slightly different), both open in an abrupt way with wailing saxophone evoking a supreme being, and both deal explicit, with lyrics, the adoration of a God, no matter what religion. Agree or not with these spiritual views, no one can deny the whole euphoric feel that these two mega-compositions achieve. However, Pharoah does not rip-off ‘A Love Supreme’, he makes his own “love supreme” composition. It is a way more tranquil and spiritual-sounding composition than anything Coltrane ever did, and the composition is by far denser in terms of instrumentation, lots of Eastern percussion plus the addition of Leon Thomas’ magnificent vocals. It’s no surprise that Lonnie Liston Smith is in here as well, playing his piano which is pure bliss. Warning, Sanders does happen to shriek with the whole band in a pure chaotic way for a few minutes, although not pleasant, it’s something that the tenor man would do throughout his whole career, and some few chaotic minutes in a 32 minute euphoric piece is more than ok for me.

As for the second and last track, ‘Colors’, it’s actually another gem, although a minor one. It continues with the love-and-peace themes and feel, but it’s not an extension of the main piece. This time Leon Thomas expresses sadness in an ecstatic way, and as a whole it’s a beautiful closer, where Pharoah does well avoiding any shrieks.

Truthfully no words can really express what I feel when I listen to both of these “supernatural” pieces, I just recommend you, open-minded jazz listener, to give them a try.

Don't fear the avant-garde jazz label, it’s not really free in any similar way to Albert Ayler’s free jazz or Coltrane’s late free jazz, with the exception of the occasional shrieks. Karma, and Sanders discography in general, is pretty accessible for anyone accustomed to lengthy saxophone solos and repetitive themes.
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