The term ‘legend’ has experienced something of an inflation in recent times. The saxophonist on stage at the Belgrave Music Hall tonight on his debut visit to Leeds, however, is indisputably a genuine capital-L legend.
It’s certainly difficult to think of a much more distinguished CV than that belonging to Pharoah Sanders, who first gained wider renown by providing integral assistance to jazz deity John Coltrane’s mid-60’s explorations into free jazz, having previously played with the intergalactically inspired avant-garde legend Sun Ra.
The demographically diverse capacity crowd – the show being totally sold out – have most likely made their way to the heaving venue thanks to Sanders’s activities since the association with Coltrane ended some 50 years ago. The heady blend of rhythmic exuberance, experimental blurring of genre barriers, virtuoso musicianship that’s always kept in service of the communal good, and the kind of cosmic and spiritual vibes that are very much of their time but have in this case managed to retain their convincing sincerity that powers Sanders’s late-60s and 70s albums in particular has gained stature and renown as the years have progressed.
The problem with witnessing a bona fide legend is low expectations: get to a certain point in an illustrious career and all you have to do to impress a crowd is to show up. The opening minutes of Sanders’s set suggest this might be the exact plan for tonight. The band strike up a twilit, hushed heartbeat whilst Sanders – his trademark goatee now entirely white – perches on a chair, studying his tenor saxophone as if the instrument that has been his weapon of choice for over six decades might still have some secrets to unveil.
As soon Sanders gets up to play any fears of uneventful coasting on past glories are extinguished. At 77, the most fierce upper register squeals and fieriest sheets of sound may be out of reach, but Sanders’s warm tones and melodic sensibilities remain strong. The trio backing him – including long-time collaborator William Henderson on grand piano – are so good that Sanders (most likely with comic intent) introduces them thrice, with even the drum solos (this being a jazz gig, there is naturally more than one drum solo) proving compelling and the music occasionally taking unexpected stylistic turns, including an all-too-brief foray into dub-influenced rhythms, Sanders again seated but by now totally involved in the music swirling around him.
By the time we get to the closing The Creator Has a Masterplan (tonight’s sole nod towards Sanders’s vintage classics), Sanders proves than even seasoned legends pack the capacity to surprise. Clearly stirred by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction, Sanders grabs the microphone and starts leading the crowd in some spirited call-and-response action by chanting (vaguely in style of the vocalese Leon Thomas provided on some of his old albums) and getting the crowd to repeat the sounds he’s making.
You could argue that such showmanship takes away time that should be dedicated to more of Sanders’s tenor saxophone, but it would be pretty churlish to complain when an artist with nothing left to prove can still be bothered to show his appreciation in such an engaging and entertaining style.