Sunday, March 28, 2010
The Return of The East! Pharoah Sanders Came Back to Brooklyn
Back in the seventies, Pharoah Sanders recorded a classic live album at a long-gone cultural center called The East in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, which I am proud to call my own home, has always been a home to a particularly fertile brand of African-American culture. Cross-pollinated by waves of immigrants from the southern U.S., from the English-, French- and Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean, and even from African countries; and sharing space with communities routed in other, different immigrant waves from Europe and the Middle East, Brooklyn's African-American community has been self-conscious, politically aware, and culturally ground-breaking for decades. The East seems to have been a showcase for Afro-centric, progressive, and independent jazz musicians; among the other ground-breaking albums recorded there is Mtume's legendary Strata-East label rarity, "Alkebu-Lan, Land of the Blacks."
The organizers of last night's concert wanted to recreate the vibe of The East in 2010, and so the 11th Annual Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival presented "Pharoah Sanders Returns To Brooklyn" at the Boys & Girls High School in Bed-Stuy. The concert opened with a performance from the Yoruba folkloric ensemble Omi Yesa. Lead by akpwon Amma McKen, the group of singers and drummers (on bata and cajon) played some of the liturgical songs of the Yoruba/Lucumi/Santeria religion. (Amma McKenn can be heard on her excellent album "Alaako Oso.") It was a little odd for me to hear this music--indeed these singers--outside of a ritual setting: one of the singers, Ola Dejean, in fact sang at my own initiation into the religion back in 1996. Maferefun Obatala. Anyway they had two excellent dancers and a narrator explained the context of the music nicely.
Omi Yesa was followed by some recitations by the poet Louis Reyes Rivera. His closing poem, "Place I Never Been" about the assassination of Malcolm X was devastating. (You can see him reciting this poem a few years ago on Youtube.)
Longtime activist, and one of the original founders of The East, Jitu Weusi spoke about continuing efforts to keep Brooklyn and African-American educational institutions meaningful to the community they serve.
After the intermission, out came Pharoah Sanders. He was joined by his longtime bassist Alex Blake and longtime keyboard player William Henderson; and by three drummers: Greg Bandy on traps, Abdul Sabor on hand drums and percussion, and Neil Clarke (also, by the way, a Yoruba priest) on congas and percussion. As a previously unannounced guest, legend and fellow seventies ground-breaker Gary Bartz joined the band on alto sax for about half the show. (Bartz was a veteran of The East as well; he's featured on the "Alkebu-Lan" album).
As I mentioned yesterday, despite my long affection for Pharoah's music, I had never seen him perform. My favorite of his albums are his run of Impulse! albums from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, and while his albums of more traditionally jazz-focused standards of more recent years are pleasing, I really wanted to see him perform in a setting outside that of a quartet. Last night I got my wish.
It was an incredible evening. The band opened with the slow strains of John Coltrane's "Welcome," and moved into a terrific version of a Broadway show tune that John Coltrane first forever transformed, "My Favorite Things," which segued into another chestnut "Clear Out of this World." My fear of Pharoah playing standards was completely unjustified. The percussionists added color and depth and groove, and all of the musicians were in fine form. "My Favorite Things" was Coltrane-esque, yet taken to a still newer place by the presence of congas and Afro-Latin percussion. Pharoah let out a couple of his trademark screeches, and did something I'd heard about but couldn't previously imagine: He keeps playing his tenor sax after he takes it out of his mouth, pushing every bit of wind and breath dawdling inside that horn out. When the air is finally gone his fingers turn the keys of the sax into tiny percussion instruments. It was unspeakably amazing; joyous.
The band played non-stop. Solos and melodies came and went. Pharoah wandered around and occasionally off the stage. While at some point the band focused in on Pharoah's "Save Our Children," from one of his later albums, the set list became amorphous and irrelevant. I think there was a bit of something like "Stairway to the Stars." There were a couple bars of "The Creator Has a Master Plan." But it just became music. There were a lot of bass solos from Alex Blake. There were rounds and rounds of band introductions. Pharoah sang, and chanted, and led the audience in calls-and-response. He played air-guitar on his sax. He deferred to the talents of his partners and then he soloed and showed off his trademark quirks and distinctions. I mean this in a completely good way: the music became a kind of blur, ebbing and flowing; it stopped mattering which song was being played; it was just something to experience. His years of playing Nigerian highlifes and playing with the Gnawa musicians of Morocco were all evident. "Save Our Children," which I was once a little unimpressed by, has stepped up in my list of favorite modern Pharoah tunes.
I think what I found most unexpected was how playful the concert was. The musicians seemed to be having a great time, and especially after being joined by Gary Bartz, Pharoah seemed to relish his role in the collective magic taking place on stage. I loved the audience. All the energy sent into the room by the band was sent right back by the audience. It clapped when it was time to clap, but it sang when it was time to sing, and people called out when something amazing or wonderful happened, which was often. Perhaps it was because I was lucky enough to be in the front row (off to the side), it didn't feel like a large impersonal venue; it felt incredibly present and intimate.
It was a great homecoming; I feel lucky and blessed to have been able to attend.
(Both photos are from last night's event; the top one by me and the one of Sanders and Bartz together taken by Jesse. P.S. I assume this was being recorded; if anybody knows of the availability of that recording, drop me a note in the comments)