Pharoah Sanders possesses one of the most distinctive tenor saxophone sounds in jazz. Harmonically rich and heavy with overtones, Sanders' sound can be as raw and abrasive as it is possible for a saxophonist to produce, and although he made his name with expressionistic, nearly anarchic free jazz in John Coltrane's late ensembles of the mid-'60s, Sanders' later music is guided by more graceful concerns.
Pharoah Sanders (his given name, Ferrell Sanders) formed his first group in 1963, with pianist John Hicks (with whom he would continue to play off-and-on into the '90s), bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Billy Higgins. His first record as a leader was in 1964 for the ESP label. The group played an engagement at New York's Village Gate, where John Coltrane heard him and by 1965, Sanders was playing regularly with the Coltrane group. Strength was a necessity in that band, and as Coltrane realized, Sanders had it in abundance.
After John Coltrane's death in 1967, Sanders worked briefly with his widow, Alice Coltrane, and then primarily as a leader of his own ensembles. From 1966-1971, Sanders released several albums on Impulse, including Tauhid (1966), Karma (1969), Black Unity (1971), and Thembi (1971). In the mid-'70s, Sanders recorded his most commercial effort, Love Will Find a Way (Arista, 1977); it turned out to be a brief detour. From the late '70s until 1987, he recorded for the small independent label Theresa. From 1987, Sanders recorded for the Evidence and Timeless labels. The former bought Theresa records in 1991 and subsequently re-released Sanders' output for that company. In 1995, Sanders made his first major-label album in many years, Message From Home (produced by Bill Laswell for Verve). The two followed that one up with Save Our Children (Polygram/1999). Sanders released Spirits (Meta/2000), a multi-ethnic live suite with Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph. In the decades after his first recordings with Coltrane, Sanders developed the capability of playing convincingly in a variety of contexts, from free to mainstream, and as a mature artist he has discovered a hard-edged lyricism that has served him well.