Pharaoh Sanders turned 75 yesterday, and for the occasion I’m posting a slightly edited interview that I conducted with him and Kenny Garrett (they were then beginning the collaboration that produced the fine recordings Beyond The Wall and Sketches of MD: (Live at the Iridium) for a DownBeat cover story.
Kenny Garrett-Pharaoh Sanders (12-2-04):
TP: How did the collaboration begin? Who made the first overtures? How long have you known Kenny and how long has Kenny known you?
PHARAOH: I haven’t known Kenny personally really that long. I always liked the sound of his music, his concept. Kenny loves to play all the time, and one night when I was working at Iridium he brought his horn and asked me could he sit in. I said, ‘Kenny Garrett? Yeah.’ From that point on, whenever I’d come in town, he’d come by to sit in if he had some time. Sometimes he wouldn’t bring his horn, and I’d tell him, “Man, bring your horn next time.” The agent saw what was happening, and started putting things together.
TP: Why did you think it would work?
PHARAOH: Not so much his style of playing, but his concept of the music. Also, he’s very comfortable around me, and that made me feel comfortable around him. When he sat in, I saw what he’d do the band, and I really liked it. He opened up a lot of things in my head. So the idea of us working together was right on time. I’ll put it that way.
TP: What sorts of things did Kenny bring out of you, or is bringing out of you now?
PHARAOH: We talked about systems of multiphonics, how to get more than one note at one time. He’s into different fingerings and harmonics, and does that very well, and he knew that I was doing similar stuff, things that must horn players would never get into. He brought me a book that I’m still trying to get into. I’ve done my own concept, my own way that fits me, and we each have things we like to do. So we’d listen to each other and try to figure out what it was.
TP: I guess you figured those things out for yourself in the ‘60s.
PHARAOH: Yeah, from playing. I got into it back in Oakland, California, from a music instructor named Professor Penn. I heard how Ornette Coleman could do two notes at one time, and I asked him about it. He educated me a little bit—not that much—about overtones and the harmonics. From that point on, I just went for myself, what I heard.
TP: Parenthetically, overtones and multiphonics became part of musical parlance during the days of jump bands and rhythm-and-blues bands and blues bands, in which saxophonists were what used to be called colloquially “honkers and squealers.” Was that part of your early experience in Little Rock or when you went to California?
PHARAOH: Part of my experience when I moved from from Little Rock to Oakland. At the time, although I liked what I heard, I don’t think I was ready to perfect overtones and multiphonics, because I was still into trying to study the other elements. I hadn’t learned chord progressions, or how to create arpeggios, or all my scales. Then I learned a bit how to play on the piano. Before I came to New York, I was playing in clubs around in Oakland and Frisco, playing a lot of ballads and Charlie Parker music.
TP: One commonality I see between you and Kenny is that you’re both interested in extending the technique of your instruments as far as you can, but it always seems to be towards purposes of melody and communication, so that it isn’t done for its own sake, but towards a purpose.
PHARAOH: I don’t even think of the tenor when I’m playing. I’m not so much into saxophone technique as another person might think. I look at all of it—drums, harps. I don’t know what my concept might be at the time. It really depends on what tune we’re playing, and that’s what I try to convey through my horn, whatever instrument I hear, or whatever sound I hear.
TP: I’ve seen raucous houses go silent on one decrescendoing note as you wind down a set. Sound seems so important to your tonal personality.
PHARAOH: Well, it is. It just seems like there’s no end to my trying to perfect what I’m trying to do. That’s the way I look at it. And Kenny reminds me of myself a lot. He don’t seem to be satisfied just on what he does. It sounds so great to me, but it always seems like he can make it better.
TP: Another common thread is that neither of you is afraid to be populist. After you played with Coltrane, you attracted a wide audience with Creator Has A Master Plan with Leon Thomas, and in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s you did things like Journey To The One and Rejoice, with choruses and African percussion. And Kenny incorporates the music of his youth, Funk and R&B.
PHARAOH: Kenny does what he does very well. I don’t even call it funky. It’s just Kenny to me. There’s so many different ways to express yourself. And if a person wants to call it funk… I’m not into categories.
TP: My point is more that both of you are so focused on technique and extracting everything you can from of your instrument, and yet the ultimate purpose is to communicate, you never lose sight of melody, and you appeal to a wide audience.
PHARAOH: I always try to figure out, every night, when there’s people in a place, how to play what they want to hear, but NOT play what they want to hear! [LAUGHS] I got tired of trying to program a first tune, second tune and so on. I just start playing, and whatever happens at that moment is what’s existing at the time. But I always feel like I’m the audience and the player. If I don’t like what I’m doing, then I don’t need nothing else.
TP: Do you see the saxophone as an extension of your voice?
PHARAOH: That’s what I work on. I’m still trying to learn how to play a straight sound, play the pitch straight. When I’m playing, I worry whether every note is close to being in tune, about the way I attack the notes, the concept of how I feel—I mean, the whole spirit of the thing. If I’ve got a bad reed, I can’t be what I want to be. Some reeds give you a resistance where you can play, but when you find a reed that’s going to curl up, just dead, and then your sound will be like that. I don’t like to play until I find a good one.
TP: Was that also an issue for you back in the ’60s when you were playing with John Coltrane?
PHARAOH: Yes, that was a problem then. I didn’t know John had that problem, too. I used to wonder if it was just me. But I saw John throw reeds right on the floor if it wasn’t happening. I used to wonder sometimes: Why did I have to play saxophone? I could have played trumpet, and not have to worry about a reed every night.
TP: What got you started on saxophone? School band?
PHARAOH: I played bass clarinet in the school band. They didn’t want no saxophone. And when I played clarinet, I always wanted more of a soft, mellow flute sound rather than a squeaky sound. I used to tune the whole band up when we played festivals and concerts. When I heard a James Moody tune called “Hard To Get,” I started tipping off on the alto saxophone, but I was still thinking clarinet.
TP: Was that on your own, or in bands?
PHARAOH: That was on my own. Well, I was playing on blues jobs in Arkansas. I started playing tenor because there were lots of alto players in my town, and I felt like tenor was more my instrument.
TP: Were there any stylists you were focusing on then?
PHARAOH: I liked Charlie Parker, but no one had his music. So all I could listen to at that time was James Moody, who I always loved, and also Count Basie, “April In Paris” and tunes like that. That was about it until I left.
TP: Then you went to Oakland, and there was that very active Bay Area scene. I remember reading that you’d head out at 9 at night and come back at noon the next day, and hit all the different spots.
PHARAOH: I was staying with my aunt. I think they thought I was a bit crazy, kind of out, because I didn’t want to work on a day job. “He doesn’t want to work.” I wanted to work, but it seemed like the music was first with me. Every time I’d go to the employment office and try to find work, I would sit there for a minute, and leave. I just wasn’t into it.
[KENNY GARRETT, WHO HAD BEEN DELAYED BY TRAFFIC, ARRIVES]
KENNY: I’d like to say first that it’s an honor and blessing to be able to stand on the same bandstand with Pharaoh. I mean, Pharaoh sat on the same bandstand with John Coltrane. I try to stand as close to my understanding of the truth as possible, and Pharaoh is that to me. I just wanted to put that on the record, since Pharaoh is sitting here, and I never told him that. I think he knows anyway.
Every time Pharaoh played in New York, I tried to come down. A lot of younger musicians sleep on people like Pharaoh and George Coleman, who set the pathway. I’ve always tried to hear the guys I admire, no matter where I am in my career, because I feel it’s very important to stay in contact with that. Now, I’ve always incorporated hip-hop, funk and jazz in my music, and that’s still there when I play with Pharaoh. But the tenor has a fatter sound than the alto, and being on the bandstand with Pharaoh makes me think of other sonic possibilities. Pharaoh also shows me that I can do things differently—make that note a little bigger or sing it a little more. He brings me closer to what it is I’m trying to get to.
PHARAOH: As I said before, it seems like Kenny’s the performer and he’s the audience. That’s what comes out in his music, and people react to it. I start dancing myself! I love connecting with the audience, because you can do what you want. If they’re open. It depends on what night.
TP: This is a difficult business. And Kenny, you’re a road warrior. You’re out a lot.
KENNY: Yeah, I try to stay out. My generation doesn’t get the opportunity to play at the Five Spot for six months or a year, so I think it’s important for me to play as much as possible. When I think about Monk or Trane or Miles, guys who played all the time, they were better able to cultivate their talent or concepts.
TP: How are you approaching this quintet’s presentation?
KENNY: We’re just playing, still trying to figure out how to set it up. We both have an idea of what we want to play, and then collectively we try to find tunes we’re comfortable with. Sometimes, on my own set, after we’ve played all the high-energy music, I like to play a ballad or something that takes your mind off that a little bit. There are some people who are hearing jazz for the first time, and a little groove never hurt. I try to picture myself as a listener. I like to hear cats play all night, but I also want to have something that I can nod my head to. I’m interested in a variety of things, and I try to challenge myself. So I play with people like Q-Tip, Guru, and Jazzmatazz, or play Adagio for Strings with the New Jersey Symphony, or play Charlie Parker’s music with Roy Haynes. Then you learn things about yourself and about that music, and you can present that in the next situation.
TP: Pharaoh said that you talk a lot about multiphonics, and that you presented him with a book on the subject, while his approach is homegrown. Did Pharaoh influence you in this area?
KENNY: Definitely. Actually, it’s something that Pharaoh plays that goes BAHT-BAH-DAH—BAHHHH! I was trying to figure out how he did it, and I went home and figured out a system for myself. So I got into it the same way Pharaoh did—searching. Then an Italian saxophone player showed me a book on it, and I dropped the book on him.
TP: All sorts of interesting dynamics occur in any improvising situation. Pharaoh started off as an alto and clarinet player before coming to tenor. Last night, you were so far down on the horn that if my eyes were closed, I might have thought you were playing tenor saxophone.
KENNY: Someone else said that last night. I do play a little farther down in the horn because I like the sound, but maybe it’s more obvious alongside the tenor that I’m playing that style. Plus, I’ve been playing my C-melody, which is a combination of a tenor and an alto, so that’s a little confusing, too.
TP: When Kenny walked in, Pharaoh was discussing his influences, and he mentioned that he got to Charlie Parker through James Moody’s Octet, which toured the South a lot when he was a teenager.
PHARAOH: I started playing the alto at that time. I wasn’t hearing as much as I should have, because in Little Rock there wasn’t much to hear except blues on the radio. Also, I wasn’t able to practice at home that much, so I had to go somewhere else. Whatever I learned came from my teacher, Jimmy Cannon, who was a trumpet player. He brought records to the school, and as he played them I’d ask who it was. That’s how I started listening to Miles and Lucky Thompson, who was a great tenor saxophonist, and Trane, Rollins, and Harold Land. He liked Clifford Brown and talked about him a lot, so later on I bought Clifford Brown’s record with strings, and tried to figure it out. One thing led to another.
KENNY: My earliest influences were Hank Crawford and Grover Washington, and Cannonball Adderley’s commercial recordings, like “Mercy, Mercy, Me.” As I checked out Cannonball more, I found that he actually played straight-ahead. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy. I’m from Detroit, and everybody was checking out Charlie Parker, but all the tenor players were playing like Dexter and all the alto players were playing like Jackie McLean. to play more like Bird, trying to understand… [END OF SIDE A]
…and he used to play along in the lower part of the register—he used to love that. So I heard that, and as I got older, I used to go back and listen to that record to see he what was so impressive about that. I actually got a chance to play with Joe Henderson before he passed away on Black Hope and on a Mulgrew Miller record called Hand In Hand. I also listened to a lot of trumpet players because I loved the strength of the sound. I had an opportunity to play with Cootie Williams in Mercer Ellington’s band, and Marcus Belgrave was my teacher and mentor. I also played with Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Woody Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and Tom Harrell. Freddie particularly inspired me a lot; I always wanted to try to match his feel and his energy.
I felt the same thing when I first heard Coltrane. In fact, there’s a story that I should tell. When I was in high school, I used to play John Coltrane’s soprano, although I never KNEW it was his soprano! Because I went to school with his nephew, who used say, “My uncle is John Coltrane.” I never believed him.” Then one day Ravi called me and said, “My cousin Daryl is here with me.” I didn’t say anything. I just thought about that soprano. I wish I’d known. I would have tried to keep that horn. Maybe those vibrations would have rubbed off!
TP: Another thing you have in common is that you both started working early. Kenny could have gone to college, like a lot of your contemporaries, but you didn’t. When Pharaoh was coming up, college was less common. To use a cliche, you learned on the university of the streets.
PHARAOH: I started playing drums first. Man, I should have kept on playing drums. But I wanted me a horn, so I bought a clarinet from a guy that went to church. He wanted $17 for it. So I gave him 20 cents every other Sunday until I could buy this clarinet. I thought that was the world, for me to get this clarinet. But it was a metal clarinet. But at the time it was okay for me. The older musicians used to tell me, “You got to get your sound. You got to get the right mouthpiece. The right horn.” I was always trying to figure out how could I get a Selmer tenor. In my time, a Selmer was about $500, and that was like saying a million dollars to me. I never even had a hundred dollars in my life! I had some friends at home who let me use a King alto and a Buescher tenor, but I wasn’t comfortable because I had to take care of the instrument—don’t mess it up. I still had my clarinet, though I didn’t want to play it. My father looked at me and at that horn, and said, “That’s not nothin’. Get you a job.” I had to go to a friend’s house to get in an hour or two practice, or there’d be some conflict. practice in. Still, I was always wanted my school to have a good band, and for the guys to play right and read stuff right.
TP: Kenny, you could have gone to college, but you joined Mercer Ellington right out of high school. Was this altogether a good thing? Were there pros and cons?
KENNY: It was all pros to me. Basically, the harmony that I learned, I discovered by myself. I use different nomenclature. If I sat down with a professor, they might say, “Well, that’s what we call this,” and I’ll say, “Well, this is what I call this.” I remember talking to Herbie Hancock, and he said, “Well, everybody calls the different chords different names.”
To me, if I had gone to Berklee, I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play with Cootie Williams, who came out of retirement. Or to sit with Harold Minerve, who was a lead alto player who was a protégé of Johnny Hodges. I was able to catch the last part of the big band era, and play in organ trios. So I look on all of it as a blessing, because it makes me who I am now.
TP: Did the older musicians talk to you the same way as Pharaoh experienced, that you have to have a sound of your own?
KENNY: Actually, my father told me that. I remember one day we were at the Dairy Queen on Mack and Michigan, and he said, “Who is this on the radio?” I didn’t know. He said, “Well, everybody has a sound.” It was Stanley Turrentine. After that, I think I subconsciously started thinking about a sound. I didn’t realize I had a sound, though, until I was about 18 when I heard a tape and recognized myself. Once I realized that my sound was a bit different, then I started trying to cultivate it.
TP: Is the sound that you now project the sound that you had in your mind’s ear when you were just starting out? Or did it develop on its own?
KENNY: I think for me it was a combination of both. I definitely was conscious about the sound I wanted—and am still searching for! Every day I think about that perfect sound, if there is a perfect sound. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I might not find the PERFECT sound, but I have something that’s uniquely mine. So I just accept that as a gift from the Creator. Of course, I’m always searching. I have different mouthpieces, and I’ll say, “okay, that has this element in it, but not this other element I’m looking for.”When you get the right combination, you know it, and you can play whatever you want to play. All the ideas just flow out.
PHARAOH: I know what Kenny’s saying. He reminds me so much of John Coltrane. John would ask me after a night working, “How did that mouthpiece sound?” “It sounds great, John. It sounds like it’s been sounding.” One time I was working on a mouthpiece, and I knew John would like it. He tried it out at Birdland, and afterwards he said, “Man, I’ve got to have this.” I thought that maybe I should work on all of them like that. Later on, he called and told me, “I’m not getting the same sound all over my horn, so it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work for me.” The bottom was cool, but the upper register was sort of thin. I’d filed five of those mouthpieces. So stopped working on mouthpieces, because I was messing up.
There’s no end to looking for the best sound or tone you can get. I don’t even know what I’m looking for! Once Big Nick Nicholas told me, “I told Rollins and them cats to open up the keys so you can get some sound.” So I started raising up my keys. But that put a defect on the technique. My fingers would get stuck between the keys; they were just too high. I decided to have the keys on one horn raised up high, but not the others. that. The horn I’m playing on right now is raised up high. Because I use a very small layer mouthpiece, that kind of helps me to center the sound, so I can play louder. But if I used the same mouthpiece on an instrument where the keys are normal height, I wouldn’t get that much sound out of it.
TP: Kenny, is there anything you’d personally like to ask Pharaoh for purposes of this conversation?
KENNY: I’ve always wondered what it felt like to stand on the bandstand with John Coltrane and hear that beautiful sound. What went through your mind? Because when I’m standing next to Pharaoh, what’s going through my mind is, “Oh, he has such a beautiful sound.”
PHARAOH: I always felt that what I was doing wasn’t happening at all. I’ve heard a lot of saxophone players play in person. And I played clarinet, and always felt I had a pretty good sound. But playing with John on the bandstand, it seemed he’d been through that and was just a little bit ahead of us, in a way. I tried to figure out what is it he does to the combination of the mouthpiece and the reed to get that gutty kind of sound. But I heard him play on all kinds of mouthpieces, and it still comes out. On the bandstand, it seemed like his sound wasn’t so much like a saxophone sound. Whatever he did was coming from inside. It was more like a personal voice or something on every note. It seemed like the sound had more meat, more of everything that I’m looking for. I didn’t want to SOUND like that, but I was trying to figure out how was he able to go beyond. I know I’m fingering the same note. But I’m not getting nearly what he gets out of it.
That made me start to search for different ways to finger certain notes. I play, say, middle-C so many different ways, with so many different fingerings, and I still don’t know which ones to use. When I’m playing on a ballad, I use a certain fingering to make it more like a quality sound. Then it goes on and on. I’ve tried many mouthpieces, and I’m still not happy about the sound. I have to keep working on it. Sometimes Kenny comes to me and says, “Oh, that’s a good sound.” When he leaves the room, I want to know what he’s hearing! To me, I’m trying to be the listener, to figure out what the good sound is. Is it because the sound is more resonant? It’s cutting through? I go up and down, up and down. I’m still not satisfied.
KENNY: Miles used to talk about when he was playing with Charlie Parker, that he thought he wasn’t ready and so on. But usually the leader hears something. I would like Pharaoh to tell me what he thinks John Coltrane heard in him, what he was looking for.
PHARAOH: I don’t know! [LAUGHS] It seemed like he’d challenge the horn, trying to get all he could get out it. One time he asked me, “Can you do a low A?” I think Earl Bostic could do that just with his lips. And he used to talk about the lower B-flat on the horn. I guess he was looking to go another step down, to get whatever he could out of the instrument for his expression. But I haven’t yet got to the point yet of trying to find out what he found in me. I used to do a lot of things on my horn that I know he wasn’t doing, and he would ask me how was I fingering this or that. I couldn’t even tell him. I’d have to do it just right on the spot. A lot of my stuff comes from the inside. Especially for the lower notes, I try to get a raw, like, riled sound by humming into the horn, or harmonize it some kind of way, to just change the textures. Not all the time. Just sometimes. Or maybe make another harmonic so you say, “What’s he doing?” It wasn’t any kind of fingering.
TP: It sounds like your character must have appealed to Coltrane, just as Kenny’s appeals to you. Your perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo and always trying to advance and find something new—perhaps that was part of it.
PHARAOH: I know Kenny tries to find all kinds of way to develop his sound. That reminds me of John. John was a different than any other musician I know. I’m trying to figure out what he was hearing, and it’s hard to say. I do know he heard something.
TP: Is this collaboration going to continue?
PHARAOH: It will, but not now.
KENNY: I hope it does continue. There are only a few people who I want to sit down on the bandstand with, and Pharaoh is definitely one of them. Also, it’s a learning thing for me, too. It’s not only about being a leader. And as I learn, I hope that I’m also giving, that I’m saying, “Okay, this is another approach.” When I hear him, I think, “Oh, wow, that’s exactly what I was feeling.” I just can’t do that at this point! It’s a lot of fun to play with him, because there’s mutual respect. I know Pharaoh is going to play, and I’m going to play; we come to play music and have a good time.