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March 1, 2010

Recap: Pharoah Sanders & The Portland Jazz Festival

What a fest. This year was stellar on all fronts. Despite the economy, several sold out shows proved Portland's dedication to jazz and PDX Jazz.

I attended a conversation hosted by Barry Johnson with Pharoah Sanders at PCPA's Art Bar. Sound was a little rough. The bar area was filled with rowdy, Saturday-going quaffers, and the volume was very timid on the PA. So my notes from that are a little scattered but as you can see from my previous post of pictures, it was still exciting. Walking away with an autograph on my 1971 LP of Village of the Pharoahs left me with a giant grin for the rest of the evening. I did hear Pharoah talking about his days in Oakland, meeting Nancy King, originaly wanting to be a painter and deciding to become a tenor player at the end of high school, and even how he hitched a ride across country while his sax at the time was held together by rubber bands. Little stories like that may not make it into the jazz history books, so thank you Portland Jazz Festival for allowing these educational programs to be available. It's just one of many reasons why this fest is so unique from others.

Pharoah talked a bit about Sun Ra, mainly what I heard most was when he worked in a kitchen in New York. Sun Ra would play above the little coffee shop and John Gilmore invited Pharoah to accept admissions for shows. This grew into a relationship with Sun Ra and the rest is history. Of course he talked a great deal about Coltrane, what it was like in the group, recording, and Coltrane as a leader. Of course he talked about "The Creator Has A Master Plan" -- and of course those were the two key discussions I couldn't hear well. What I did hear him say was that Coltrane wanted to go down two paths at once, and Pharoah was that other path.

Leaving the performance at Newmark Theater left me with an even bigger grin. Pharoah was in great spirits, happy to be in Portland and happy to to be performing. You could tell he was there for the joy of playing and not just for the paycheck. I intended on taking some notes at the show, just some feelings that popped into mind, but I was just so overwhelmed and hyptnotized with glory that I couldn't remove my eyes from the bandstand. Portland's Devin Phillips introduced the band and shared some feelings about his idol. He expressed that Pharoah Sanders wasn't just about technical playing, nor cerebral, but ultimately about spirituality. And the rich, expressionistic tone that separates him from any other tenor player. Then history was made when Phillips expanded his (already impressive) resume by sharing the bandstand with Pharoah. Soloing on almost half the compositions from the set.

Pharoah's band was top notch. Most exciting was his drummer, Justin Faulkner. An amalgamation of rhythm over a four piece set. Not unlike Elvin Jones, often sounding like two or three percussionists as the audience was surrounded with polyrhythms and uptempos. With solos that were melodic as they were explosive.

Ultimately, this was an utmost spiritual event. In fact, at the end of the opening composition of "My Favorite Things," which lasted for nearly a half hour, my girlfriend was left in tears. This was then followed by "Say It (Over And Over Again)," a classic, and one of my favorite ballads. I can't help but think this may have been what it was like to see Coltrane's classic quartet in the 60s -- and I think this is as close as anyone in my generation is going to get. Thank you Pharaoh Sanders for playing music, and thank you Portland Jazz Festival for bringing musicians like Pharoah to Portland.

Photo Credits: All images by Fran Kaufman [with the exception of the PCPA marquee taken by myself]. Check out the PDX Jazz Fest's own Photostream.

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