Ferrell Sanders was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1940. His mother was a school-cafeteria cook, and his father worked for the city. When Sanders was growing up, someone at 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 paid twenty cents a week until it was his. He began taking music seriously in high school, encouraged by a teacher, and traded in his clarinet for a saxophone. At the time, Little Rock was an important stop for Black musicians touring in the segregated South, and Sanders honed his skills jamming with the R. & B. and jazz groups that came through town. After graduating, he briefly lived in Oakland, and then, in 1962, hitchhiked to New York, drawn by the jazz greats working there. He was broke when he arrived, and he picked up odd jobs to make a living, sleeping wherever he could. Soon, he met the visionary bandleader Sun Ra, who offered him a place to stay and a spot in his cosmic-jazz ensemble, Arkestra. The band’s aesthetic drew equally from ancient Egypt and the year 3000. According to Ra’s biographer, John Szwed, Ra gifted Sanders a pair of green-and-yellow pants. He also gave him a new name: Pharoah.
Sanders retained a feel for the joyful and raucous immediacy of R. & B. The producer Ed Michel later said, “Pharoah would take an R&B lick and shake it until it vibrated to death, into freedom.” But he soon became a star of the new, experimental wave of sixties jazz, often referred to as the “New Thing” or “free jazz.” At the time, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and others were breaking from traditional approaches to rhythm and harmonic structure. Sanders’s compositions were open and atmospheric, and his playing moved restlessly between smooth, serene melodies and blaring, hyperactive improvisations. You didn’t passively listen to someone like Sanders so much as receive a transference of energy or take in a brilliant explosion of light. Not everyone was ready for it.
In 1965, Coltrane, struck by Sanders’s fiery, overblown approach, invited him to join his band. The two rarely spoke, and communicated primarily through playing. After Coltrane’s death, two years later, Sanders began releasing a series of albums for Impulse!, a label that was home to some of the genre’s great experimentalists. His best work of this era was euphoric and dense, full of chimes, bells, and percussion, as though he were leading a caravan of musicians from the world’s various forms of folk music. His playing was flecked with blasts 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 duets with the ecstatic yodelling of the vocalist Leon Thomas. The music isn’t cathartic. Instead, it achieves a blissful, unresolved intensity that you are meant to carry into 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 led by Sam Shepherd, a d.j. who produces electronic music under the name Floating Points. Shepherd, an Englishman in his mid-thirties, emerged in the late two-thousands, making boogie-influenced dance tracks. His music soon became more ambient and expansive, as though he were uncoiling his club-oriented songs and exploring where the synth squiggles and hazy textures might go if they were allowed to meander. In 2015, he released “Elaenia,” which flitted between squelchy dance music and fusion-inspired experiments in mood. That year, Sanders was in a car with a representative from Shepherd’s label who began playing “Elaenia.” Sanders became transfixed, and the pair sat there until the record finished. Afterward, he remarked that he hoped to meet the person who had made it.
In the following years, Sanders and Shepherd often discussed a potential collaboration. They hung out in Shepherd’s London studio and visited the British Museum together to see the ancient Egyptian sculptures of Sekhmet. Eventually, they began recording in Los Angeles. “Promises,” the result of their work, is a single, forty-six-minute composition that showcases both of their strengths—a rarity for an intergenerational conversation between a jazz great and a much younger fan. In contrast with the uproarious, conjuring tunes of Sanders’s youth, or Shepherd’s floor-packing dance music, it is a remarkably intimate experience.
The composition, written by Shepherd, begins with orchestral refrains that evoke a sense of space, an open field. Sanders explores the expanse, testing out riffs and runs. You are carried along not by a rhythm track but by the flickers of Sanders’s horn, the distant sound of a synthesizer, string crescendos suggesting a light just past the horizon. There are long, quiet stretches when you can hear Sanders’s reed vibrating as he blows, the sound of sheet music being shuffled. Over time, the orchestra takes charge, and, about halfway through, a swell of strings washes over everything, calling to mind Alice Coltrane’s swirling, devotional music. When the instrumentals settle, Sanders returns quietly, fingering the keys, then blowing again, softly. His playing is twisty and teasing. A synthesizer seesaws in the distance, almost imperceptible, as Shepherd slowly begins to accompany him.
Sanders is among the last living greats of sixties jazz. Given the pace of musical innovation today, it’s easy to forget that history remains so close at hand—that Sanders, who was still touring until the pandemic, inherited one of his first instruments from someone who lived through the last days of slavery, or that he got his start playing in the Jim Crow South. Shepherd’s composition shows an appreciation for Sanders’s life and legacy, and explores the spiritual undercurrent that links the saxophonist’s blistering sixties material to the dance producer’s trancelike works. A collaboration like this is not unheard of. One of Sanders’s contemporaries is the saxophonist Archie Shepp. In 2020, Shepp released an album called “Ocean Bridges” with the rapper Raw Poetic (his nephew) and the producer Damu the Fudgemunk; last month, he put out “Let My People Go,” a duet with the 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’s style is more subdued than it once was. But his sense of questing—whether for some kind of spiritual absolution or just for the perfect horn sound—endures. The vastness of his lungs and his range of expressiveness still show in flashes. In December, 2019, I saw Sanders play at a jazz club in New York. The set moved between silky ballads and explosive sixties classics 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 launched into an overwhelming ten-minute solo. But now he looked into the bell of his horn, as though it contained some secret, and then blew gently 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 though discovering anew all the different sounds that it could produce. Everyone leaned in, and the sound he made was so quiet that you couldn’t tell whether it was him humming, or softly laughing to himself—whether the horn was vibrating at all. ♦