LOS ANGELES — Pharoah Sanders, the legendary jazz saxophonist perhaps best known for his transcendent work with John Coltrane and a solo run for Impulse Records beginning in the mid-1960s, and who helped define the so-called movement of spiritual jazz, passed away. He was 81 years old.
Sanders died Saturday morning in Los Angeles, his record label, Luaka Bop, confirmed on Twitter. The cause of death was not given.
“We are devastated to learn that Pharoah Sanders has passed away,” the label’s statement read. “He passed away peacefully surrounded by his loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, into a musical family, Sanders came to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he played alongside many of the region’s top musicians, including saxophonists Dewey Redman and Sonny Simmons, pianist Ed Kelly and drummer Smiley Winters.
He moved to New York in 1961, where at first he was unable to make a living from his music, but soon found work with Sun Ra, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and other jazz greats.
In 1965 Sanders joined Coltrane’s band as tenor saxophonist and together they broke traditional jazz molds in albums like “Ascension” and “Meditations.”
“Coltrane’s sets with Sanders were among the most controversial in jazz history,” Sanders’ website said.
“Their music represents an almost total desertion of traditional jazz concepts, such as swing and functional harmony, in favor of a bountiful, irregularly structured organic mixture of sound for sound. Strength was a necessity in this group, and as Coltrane realized, Sanders had it in abundance.
After Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders briefly performed with his widow, Alice Coltrane, before going their separate ways to pursue his own projects.
In 1969 Sanders released his most famous work, “Karma”, which featured “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, a recording that became one of the most influential tracks of its time.
Sanders continued to release records throughout the 1970s and 80s as a bandleader and accompanist before his output began to slow in the 90s.
After a long hiatus, he returns to the studio in 2021 to record “Promises” with electronic music producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra.
“My handsome friend passed away this morning,” Floating Points wrote on Instagram after news broke of his death. “I am so lucky to have known this man, and we are all blessed that his art stays with us forever. Thank you Pharaoh.
Sanders’ complex and structurally fluid instrumental ideas would go on to influence subsequent generations of musicians, including the LA scene that produced Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Madlib, Carlos Niño and Terrace Martin.
In a 2020 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Sanders was soft-spoken and answered questions with one-sentence answers. Asked about his famous work “The Creator Has a Master Plan” and if the state of the world made him doubt any grand design, his response was short: “The Creator Has a Master Plan. That’s it.”
Alongside him was his longtime friend and saxophonist Azar Lawrence, who added, “The message that Pharoah continues to give us is one of continued hope. The creator has a master plan – which means that even during this time, it’s all in the master plan. Everything works together for our good.
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