I played alto and baritone saxophone in jazz bands through high school and into early college but rarely listened to jazz for enjoyment. Early in college, when I started listening to Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie for fun, I discovered the Red Hot on Impulse compilation from Impulse Records. Looking back, this should have been an insane leap for me, but it completely made sense at the time. See, I loved the music of Charlie Peacock, he loved John Coltrane, this CD featured music by both John and Alice Coltrane, and it was in the record stores bargain bin.
Red Hot on Impulse opens with Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda.” At that formative time in my discovery of music, I had never heard free jazz, I only knew of sleigh bells in Christmas music, and the only context I had for sitar was Indian music (this was before I listened to The Beatles). The collision of jazz and world music was unlike anything I had ever heard before.
Pharoah Sanders’ solo in “Journey in Satchidananda” is captivating. Quite possibly my favorite tenor sax solo of all time. Effortlessly bridging bebop, free and out there astral jazz, he weaves together nearly a quarter century of jazz history with cascading arpeggios. Sanders’ solo is one of longing, searching, yearning.
His restraint and melody are especially uncharacteristic, especially after all his experimenting with John Coltrane’s quartet and sprawling work on his own solo albums. Although his playing on Don Cherry’s Symphony for the Improvisers was memorable and breathtaking, it’s not especially melodic.
Anyway, I feel the term spiritual is thrown around too freely when describing the music of John or Alice Coltrane. While they both had spiritual motivations and wanted to convey spiritual lessons, perhaps visceral is a more accurate term in describing much of their music that eludes easy description. Sanders’ solo isn’t merely an academic exercise; it’s. His solo has to be felt.