Pharoah Sanders may be regarded as, without reservation, one of the greatest modern jazz musicians. His saxophone has graced the heights of recorded music, including his work with John Coltrane from the spiritual, majestic A Love Supreme onward through ‘Trane‘s revolutionary free jazz era. He’s played with nearly every major jazz artist you love and he’s appeared on more records than you own. Probably.
My aim in pointing out how ubiquitous Mr. Sanders truly is in the jazz world, is that if you’re the average listener out there, you probably have yet to hear a record with his name above the title. We’re starting with an unquestionable masterpiece, Karma. Consider this a course correction on your musical journey.
Opening inside a softly hip-shaking groove with trilling flute dressing and assuredly delicate sax soloing, The Creator Has A Master Plan is a transformative journey with an enticingly swinging intro. Clocking in at 33 minutes and taking up the entire A side on the original vinyl, it’s the reason we’re here. Mantra-like vocals enter the fray several minutes in, building towards the title phrase emphatically hopping on the beat until slipping into the melody, only to return later with a mighty force. It’s the spiritual, compulsive nature of this piece which really sets it alight upon first listen. It simply feels like the most naturally uplifting element since sunlight itself. It’s water for a parched soul and tired ears.
And it feels alive. The saxophone doubles up with a vengeance almost halfway through and the free jazz influence becomes arrestingly tangible – yet the music never fully dips into atonal washes of soloing. Instead the rhythm section builds up around Sanders until it mushrooms into a loose cloud enveloping the now-wordless vocal chants. Bits of flute, piano, and bells jut out from the comforting haze, riding atop a tambourine-and-tom stream… and suddenly the whole affair seems to be speeding out of control with the starbound saxophone at the helm. We’re suddenly in a jazz version of the psychedelic river-tunnel scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with Pharoah replacing Gene Wilder’s mad genius at the head of the ship. And just like in the film, everything ends okay when the rhythm section gathers itself with the able assistance of the gradually organized soloing and Leon Thomas’ warbled yelps of inspiration sprinkling in more heavenly chatter on the journey. The sheer expressiveness of the man’s instrument, it’s full breadth and depth on display throughout a blissful half hour, is enough to make anyone a believer.
There’s a second side, a short track named Colors, which is a relatively relaxed workout, a pleasant comedown from the epic heights of the first. It’s essential listening, but only when it’s following the real ride. A light desert after the nourishing masterpiece of this record, with melancholy vocals and a wistful muted brass tone, shimmering the album to a close.