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Pharoah Sanders, Saxophonist Who Pushed Jazz Toward the Spiritual, Dead at 81

Pharoah Sanders, the saxophonist who helped John Coltrane explore the avant-garde and pushed jazz itself toward the spiritual, has died at the age of 81.

Record label Luaka Bop, which released Sanders and Floating Points’ acclaimed collaboration Promises in 2021, announced the jazz legend’s death Saturday; no cause of death was provided.

“We are devastated to share that Pharoah Sanders has passed away,” the label wrote on Instagram. “He died peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace.”

The Little Rock, Arkansas-born Farrell Sanders first came up in the Bay Area jazz scene before moving to New York City, where he initially struggled.

“Unable to make a living with his music, Sanders took to pawning his horn, working non-musical jobs, and sometimes sleeping on the subway,” the saxophonist’s website said. However, Sanders soon found work alongside fellow innovators like Sun Ra (who told him to adopt the name “Pharoah” instead of Farrell), Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, who after his landmark A Love Supreme was beginning to experiment with free jazz.

Sanders’ joined Coltrane’s group on tenor saxophone in 1965, a year that saw Coltrane record three of his avant-garde masterworks: Ascension, Meditations and Om. Following Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders briefly performed alongside his widow Alice Coltrane (including her classic Journey in Satchidananda) before embarking on his own path as leader.

In 1969, Sanders released what is considered his most revered work, Karma, which features his side-and-a-half-long opus “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” a recording that pushed spiritual jazz further skyward and one of the most influential tracks of its era.

The saxophonist continued his steady output over the Seventies and Eighties, both as leader and sideman for fellow jazz greats like McCoy Tyner, Sonny Sharrock, Idris Muhammad, Leon Thomas and many more.

While the saxophonist remained a fixture on the live jazz circuit, in 2021 Sanders returned from a nearly two-decade studio hiatus to record alongside electronic music producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. The resulting work, Promises, has been hailed as one of the best jazz albums of the past decade.

“Consisting of a single, 46-minute work, the album is both startlingly minimal and arrestingly gorgeous,” IndieLand wrote of the LP.

“Only sparingly, such as one during brief, stunning episode about 35 minutes in, does Sanders break into the harsh sax ululation that he’s famous for, but overall, the piece feels like a loving sonic gift to a master from a disciple, and a worthy successor to Sanders’ foundational Sixties and Seventies epics.”

Floating Points paid tribute to Sanders Saturday following news of his death, “My beautiful friend passed away this morning. I am so lucky to have known this man, and we are all blessed to have his art stay with us forever. Thank you Pharoah.”

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