Ferrell Sanders was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1940. His mother was a cook in a school cafeteria and his father worked for the city. When Sanders was growing up, someone from his church advertised a metal clarinet for sale; the previous owner had died in his nineties. Sanders couldn’t afford to buy it outright, so he was paying twenty cents a week until it was his. He started taking music seriously in high school, encouraged by a teacher, and traded in his clarinet for a saxophone. At the time, Little Rock was a milestone for black musicians touring the isolated south, and Sanders honed his skills playing with the jazz and R. & B groups that passed through town. After graduating, he briefly lived in Oakland, then, in 1962, hitchhiked in New York City, drawn to the jazz greats who worked there. He was broke when he arrived and he took odd jobs for a living, sleeping wherever he could. Soon he meets visionary conductor Sun Ra, who offers him accommodation and a place in his cosmic jazz ensemble, Arkestra. The group’s aesthetic was also inspired by ancient Egypt and the year 3000. According to Ra’s biographer John Szwed, Ra gifted Sanders green and yellow pants. He also gave it a new name: Pharaoh.
Sanders kept the feeling of R. & B’s cheerful and boisterous immediacy. Producer Ed Michel later said, “Pharoah would take an R&B lick and shake it until it vibrates to death, in freedom.” But he quickly became a star of the experimental new wave of 1960s jazz, often referred to as “New Thing” or “free jazz”. At the time, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and others broke with traditional approaches to rhythm and harmonic structure. Sanders’ compositions were open and atmospheric, and his playing shifted relentlessly between soft, serene melodies and screaming, hyperactive improvisations. You haven’t listened passively to someone like Sanders as much as you have received an energy transfer or a brilliant burst of light. Not everyone was ready for this.
In 1965, Coltrane, struck by Sanders’ fiery and exaggerated approach, invited him to join his group. The two rarely spoke and communicated primarily while playing. After Coltrane’s death two years later, Sanders began releasing a series of albums for Impulse !, a label that housed some of the genre’s great experimenters. His best work of that time was euphoric and dense, full of chimes, bells and percussion, as if he was leading a caravan of musicians from the different forms of folk music from around the world. His game was peppered with explosions of noise, but it was also propulsive. He was trying to get somewhere. The first time I listened to “Jewels of Thought,” a record he released in 1970, was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Sanders duet with ecstatic yodeling from singer Leon Thomas. The music is not cathartic. Instead, it achieves a happy, unresolved intensity that you’re meant to carry in everyday life.
This month, Sanders returns with “Promises,” his first major album in nearly two decades. It is a collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra and is conducted by Sam Shepherd, a dj who produces electronic music under the name of Floating Points. Shepherd, an Englishman in his mid-30s, emerged in the late 2000s, creating dance pieces influenced by boogie. His music quickly became more ambient and expansive, as if he was unrolling his club-oriented songs and exploring where synth scribbles and hazy textures could go if they were allowed to meander. In 2015, he released “Elaenia”, which oscillates between silent dance music and ambient experiences inspired by fusion. That year, Sanders was in a car with a representative of the Shepherd label who started playing “Elaenia”. Sanders became transfixed, and the couple stayed there until the record was over. Subsequently, he remarked that he hoped to meet the person who had succeeded.
Over the following years, Sanders and Shepherd often discussed a potential collaboration. They hung out in Shepherd’s London studio and together toured the British Museum to see Sekhmet’s ancient Egyptian sculptures. Eventually, they started recording in Los Angeles. “Promises”, the result of their labor, is a unique forty-six minute composition that showcases both of their strengths – a rarity for an intergenerational conversation between a great jazzman and a much younger fan. In contrast to the tumultuous and evocative airs of Sanders’ youth, or the dance music of Shepherd, it is a remarkably intimate experience.
The composition, written by Shepherd, begins with orchestral choruses that evoke a feeling of space, an open field. Sanders explores the expanse, testing riffs and runs. You are carried away not by a rhythmic track but by the twinkling of Sanders’ horn, the distant sound of a synthesizer, string crescendos suggesting a light just beyond the horizon. There are long quiet periods where you can hear Sanders’ reed vibrate as it blows, with the sound of the score being mixed. Over time, the orchestra takes matters into their own hands, and about halfway through, a wave of strings pervades everything, reminiscent of the swirling, devotional music of Alice Coltrane. When the instrumentals settle in, Sanders quietly returns, fingers the keys, then breaths again, softly. His playing is sinuous and teasing. A synthesizer rocks in the distance, almost imperceptible, as Shepherd slowly begins to accompany it.
Sanders is among the last jazz greats of the sixties. Given the pace of musical innovation today, it’s easy to forget that history remains so close – that Sanders, who was still on tour until the pandemic, inherited one of his first instruments. of someone who lived through the last days of slavery, or that he started playing in the Jim Crow South. Shepherd’s composition shows an appreciation for Sanders’ life and legacy, and explores the spiritual stream that connects the saxophonist’s scorching sixties material to the dance producer’s trance works. A collaboration like this is not unheard of. One of Sanders’ contemporaries is saxophonist Archie Shepp. In 2020, Shepp released an album titled “Ocean Bridges” with rapper Raw Poetic (his nephew) and producer Damu the Fudgemunk; last month he released “Let My People Go”, a duet with pianist Jason Moran. A playful reverence runs through these collaborations, but, in the end, they feel like attempts to update Shepp’s sound. On “Promises”, the two artists create something new.
Sanders’ style is more understated than it once was. But his sense of quest – whether for some sort of spiritual absolution or just the perfect horn sound – endures. The immensity of his lungs and his range of expressiveness are always manifested in flashes. In December 2019, I saw Sanders perform at a jazz club in New York City. The whole evolves between silky ballads and explosive classics of the 60s like “The creator has a master plan”. In between, he often closed his eyes or sat impassively, staring at the ceiling. In the past, when his band settled into a groove, he might have embarked on an overwhelming ten-minute solo. But now he looked into the bell of his horn, as if it contained a secret, then breathed softly into the mouthpiece, creating a muffled sound. He huffed and continued, whispering into the horn, tapping the sides, running his fingers along the keys as if he was again discovering all the different sounds he could make. Everyone leaned over and the sound he made was so quiet you couldn’t tell if he was humming or laughing softly – if the horn was vibrating at all. ♦