Listen to this track from Avant garde tenor player with a soft side Pharaoh Sanders. It’s “Astral Traveling”, a track as taken off of his 1971 LP Thembi. This record catches Sanders during what many consider to be his prime period. But, instead of stretching out for side-long excursions into tempestuous and ferocious whirlwinds of sound, this record is more varied, and with more bite-sized track lengths, not to mention moments of serenity and lyricism. Maybe it was because the record was named after Sanders’ wife. But, it largely deals in subtlety and sonic variation, as opposed to the crashing assault for which much of his work is generally known.
This album is actually the product of two different sessions. Like many jazz records toward the end of the sixties and into the seventies, these sessions were edited into a whole at the production stage instead of being recorded right off of the floor as is. This doesn’t mean that the record was without spontaneity or the spirit of experimentation. In fact, this very track can certainly be considered experimental, even if it is pastoral in equal measure.
Pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, the composer of this tune, was introduced to the Fender Rhodes piano for the very first time on this record. When the musicians arrived at the studio, the instrument was in place. As Sanders unpacked his horns, and as the other musicians set up the percussion instruments (as with much of his catalogue, Sanders favoured lots of percussion!), Smith found he had time on his hands.
I saw this instrument sitting in the corner and I asked the engineer, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘That’s a Fender Rhodes electric piano.’ I didn’t have anything to do, so I started messing with it, checking some of the buttons to see what I could do with different sounds. All of a sudden I started writing a song and everybody ran over and said, ‘What is that?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just messing around.’ Pharoah said, ‘Man, we gotta record that. Whatcha gonna call it?’ I’d been studying astral projections and it sounded like we were floating through space so I said let’s call it ‘Astral Traveling.’ That’s how I got introduced to the electric piano. (read the whole article by Jim Newsom)
Sometimes, the muse works through technology and circumstance as well as through the traditionally mysterious routes to composition. This is both sobering and encouraging at the same time, it seems to me, and for many of the same reasons. Career-defining work that seems as though it’s always been around very often depends on serendipity and how open musicians and composers are open to it. It also requires a sense of playfulness balanced against discipline and restraint.
I suppose it’s this last part that makes this track such a revelation to me. I’m not much of a fan of avant garde jazz, or “the new thing” as it became known. I find it far too serious, too earnest, too inward to the point where it forgets the other side of the musical equation — the audience. And, ultimately, I like a good tune, or at very least an aural landscape that leaves some room for me to walk around in. This piece works because it’s led by a sense of wonder. I love the above quote from Sanders himself: “Man, we gotta record that! Whatcha gonna call it?” There’s something childlike in that quote that contrasts the studiousness that is associated with “out there” jazz excursion.
That’s what helps to make this track so special. Even serious jazz explorers testing the boundaries of musical worlds can be surprised and humbled by what they find during those moments when music simply arrives rather than requires tireless pursuit.
Pharaoh Sanders is an active musician today. You can learn more about him at his official website.