Pharoah Sanders, a tenor saxophonist who performed with John Coltrane in the 1960s and was revered by many in the jazz world as an exemplar of a boldly expressive and experimental style known as free jazz, died Sept. 24 in Los Angeles. He was 81.
The saxophonist’s best-known work was his two-part “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” from the “Karma” album released in 1969. The combined track is nearly 33 minutes long and showcased Mr. Sanders’s signature approach: bold and piercing and infused with spiritual sentiments.
Along with saxophonists Coltrane and Albert Ayler, Marcus J. Moore wrote in the Nation, Mr. Sanders helped pioneer “a frenetic blend of spiritual jazz that, through shrieking horns and loose rhythmic structure, was meant to summon higher powers. The idea, it seemed, was to blow the sax so hard that the music reached God’s ears.”
Although his ventures in music could alienate some listeners and critics, Mr. Sanders was regarded by his most fervent admirers as a master of freewheeling avant-garde improvisation. He drew a considerable and supportive audience as a committed experimenter testing the boundaries of R&B, electric jazz and hard bop styles.
He was born Farrell Sanders on Oct. 13, 1940, in Little Rock, where his mother was a school-cafeteria cook and his father was a city employee. He played drums and clarinet in a church group, then moved to saxophone and performed in Little Rock clubs.
After high school he moved to Oakland, Calif., where he intended to attend art school, and then hitchhiked his way across the country in 1962 to join the New York avant-garde jazz scene. He was homeless at times as he struggled to find work. “I was trying to survive some kind of way,” he told the New Yorker. “I used to work a few jobs here and there, earn five dollars, buy some food, buy some pizza. I had no money at all.”
He gradually drew notice for the ferocity of his horn and settled into experimental groups fronted by Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, the last of whom was said to have renamed him Pharoah after perhaps mishearing his given name. Coltrane invited him into his band in 1965. “I couldn’t figure out why he wanted me to play with him, because I didn’t feel like, at the time, that I was ready to play with John Coltrane,” Mr. Sanders said. “He always told me, ‘Play.’ That’s what I did.”
Coltrane died in 1967, and Mr. Sanders soon established a solo career. His most commercially successful work came for Impulse Records, including the renowned “Karma” album. He was also featured on the 1971 album “Journey in Satchidananda,” by Coltrane’s widow, Alice, a multi-instrumentalist and composer.
After more than a decade of performing but not recording albums, Mr. Sanders released the much-admired “Promises” in 2021 with Sam Shepherd (a British electronic music producer known professionally as Floating Points) and the London Symphony Orchestra. Rolling Stone magazine called it “both startlingly minimal and arrestingly gorgeous.”
In 2016 the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, one of the country’s highest honors for jazz musicians. A list of survivors was not immediately available.
In interviews, he was seldom expansive about his art, preferring to let the music speak for itself. But he told the New Yorker in 2020 that he was, since childhood, drawn to all kinds of noise.
“I used to love hearing old car doors squeaking,” he said. “Sometimes, when I’m playing, I want to do something, but I feel like, if I did, it wouldn’t sound right. So I’m always trying to make something that might sound bad sound beautiful in some way. I’m a person who just starts playing anything I want to play, and make it turn out to be maybe some beautiful music.”