Pharaoh Sanders, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, Wed 27 June
Old genius there but rigidity makes for a graceful, not sublime gig
Considering the proven audience for experimental music in Scotland, Glasgow Jazz Festival's reluctance to embrace the avant-garde seems like a missed opportunity. The booking of the great tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders as headliner, then, might seem like a welcome step outside their comfort zone. The young firebrand who conjured ecstatic frenzies of spiritual tongue with John Coltrane has mellowed with age, however, eschewing the free blowing and Afrocentric vibrations of yore for mainstream post-bop. Not that there's anything wrong with that: several of his peers have taken a similar route, incorporating their findings from the outer-reaches into more conventional forms, reinvigorating jazz tradition in the process.
It's a shame, then, that this gig never really catches fire. There are sound problems: Sanders has trouble hearing William Henderson's piano in the monitor, inhibiting his playing as a result. The piano is also too quiet out front, diluting the power of Henderson's elegant virtuosity; he can be heard, but not felt. Given the technical difficulties and Sanders' 71 years, a certain diminution in his playing can be forgiven. His rounded, slightly raspy tone remains intact, lending a rich and soulful sound to melodic phrases. There might not be any grunting multi-phonics or paint-stripping squeals, and his speedier runs are a little creaky, but Sanders' solos still show hints of his genius for improvising colourful routes around modal co-ordinates.
Perhaps the main problem is the structure. Each piece begins with Sanders playing the head, or theme, then improvising around it. He then steps aside to give Henderson a chance to shine, before the drummer and bassist take their solos. Standard bebop practice, but rigidly applied, creating few opportunities for interplay or collective improvisation. There's barely any deviation from the chord structure or rhythm, and while such constraints can create thrilling moments of tension, tonight the players seem content to remain safely in the pocket. Their musicianship is consummate, but rarely exciting or surprising. A more adventurous rhythm section might have pushed Sanders and Henderson to greater heights. Considering Sanders' past glories, whether with John or Alice Coltrane, guitarist Sonny Sharrock, or as leader of his own cartwheeling ensembles, this formulaic and overly tasteful approach is a little disappointing.
The main set ends with his best known tune, 'The Creator Has Masterplan' from the 1969 masterpiece Karma. Sanders' opening solo is instantly recognisable, a call for spiritual communion which casts rays of golden light from the mountaintops. The small band doesn't try to capture the arkestral intensity of the recorded version. Instead they focus on the gorgeous 'A Love Supreme' derived vamp, Henderson embellishing the chords with lush harmonic filigree. It flows elegantly, without ever gaining the momentum that might lead to transcendence. Sanders' greatest music achieves satori through the confluence of serene beauty and cathartic spontaneity. Tonight's gig brought moments of grace, but few glimpses of the sublime.