Amidst a renaissance of spiritual jazz, Pharoah Sanders brought his tenor saxophone to the legendary Birdland jazz club in New York City to play a mix of expected classics and passionate surprises. Over the course of two sets on Wednesday night, Sanders and his quartet showcased the top-tier musicianship that has garnered such acclaim for the past five decades.
Both sets ran about 90 minutes, with the first one utilizing classics like “Thembi” and Coltrane’s “Naima” to energize the crowd with familiar riffs. Sanders, who is currently 75 years of age, has the presence of a guru. His white facial hair is exaggerated by his dark complexion, and when he isn’t blowing his horn he can be seen in a meditative state listening to the combination of his bandmates, led by William Henderson on Piano. Although he is selective of when he plays, he dictates the energy of the room. When he’s listening, the crowd is listening. When he’s dancing, the crowd is cheering, smiling, and bopping around themselves.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the first set was thinking about it contextually following the second set. For whatever reason, we didn’t expect the seasoned bunch to bring a completely different set later in the evening, but it’s just what they did. On top of that, Sanders must have had a burst of energy come over him, because he played his horn about 50% more, landing those gut-wrenching saxophone squeals much more often to the crowd’s delight. We weren’t the only table full of melted faces as the quartet laid in on thick. As if a boost in Sanders playing wasn’t enough, his son Tomoki Sanders sat in for a few songs. It was a sweet surprise to have a couple generations of free-jazz saxophone extraordinaires up on that stage, and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Tomoki showed up his old man by bringing a youthful energy onto a stage that was populated by senior citizens.
But let’s not sell the veterans short either; they smoked all night. The night came to a boiling point after a minute-long, pin-drop silent discussion between Henderson and Sanders, eventually birthing “Olé,” the Coltrane tune of which Sanders has been known to rip into a new dimension. He did just that as the slow-burning ~15-minute version sent the crowd into ecstasy. “Colors” brought tranquility out of the rather intense Coltrane cover, and the quartet invited vocalist Tony Hewitt, who had been sitting in throughout the night, back out for “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” Sanders was even in the spirit to sing some of the track as well. It concluded a wonderful night of music at Birdland, who expertly hosted the evening only a way that a true NYC institution can.
The Pharoah Sanders Quartet continue their run at Birdland tonight, and will play through Sunday April 10, with a show at 8.30pm and another at 11pm each night.