R.I.P. jazz icon Pharoah Sanders

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Saxophonist and legendary jazz composer and bandleader Pharoah Sanders has died. His passing was confirmed this morning via his label, Luaka Bop. He was 81 years old.

“We are devastated to share that Pharoah Sanders has passed away,” the label’s post reads. “He died peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace.”

Born Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas, he began playing saxophone in high school and would sneak out to clubs in downtown Little Rock to play with musicians whose tours would bring them through town. He later moved to Oakland, where he began his professional career, and shortly thereafter relocated to New York City. He earned his name “Pharoah” from fellow jazz innovator Sun Ra, who would also give him clothing and a place to stay.

In 1965, Sanders began playing with John Coltrane’s band, where he delved into exploratory free-jazz sounds on albums like 1966’s Ascension. The following year, Sanders released his Impulse! Records debut, Tauhid, which showcased his long-form, spiritual jazz sound, which later took on even cosmic proportions on 1969’s Karma, a deeper, free-flowing groove on the album-length composition Black Unity, and a more meditative approach on 1971’s Thembi. His music often featured a balance of powerful, discordant free-jazz intensity and more atmospheric moments of beauty and transcendence. He also featured prominently on Alice Coltrane’s 1971 album Journey in Satchidananda.

Sanders continued performing up through his later years, most recently releasing Promises, his full-length collaboration with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra.

“Sometimes, when I’m playing, I want to do something, but I feel like, if I did, it wouldn’t sound right,” Sanders said in an interview with The New Yorker in 2020. “So I’m always trying to make something that might sound bad sound beautiful in some way. I’m a person who just starts playing anything I want to play, and make it turn out to be maybe some beautiful music.”

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