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Pharoah Sanders, Spiritual Jazz Giant, Dies at 81

Wojciech Soporek, via Wikimedia Commons
Influential jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, one of the leaders in the spiritual jazz movement along with the genre's creator —his mentor and his frequent collaborator John Coltrane— died Saturday at the age of 81.

Luaka Bop, the record label that released his final album "Promises" in 2021, announced his death on Twitter.

"We are devastated to share that Pharoah Sanders has passed away," the label wrote. "He died peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace."

There was no cause of death given for Sanders. His manager, Anna Sala, confirmed Sander's passing in an email to CNN and called it "a huge loss for the music world."

"His work influenced many generations of artists," Sala said.

Born Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas, the artist had a musical upbringing but did not begin playing the saxophone until high school. Following his graduation in 1959, he started his professional career in Oakland, California, before finding his way to New York City.

There Sanders would initially experience bouts of homelessness intermingled with opportunity as he found like minds and began to push the scope of what it meant to be a saxophonist. Legendary jazz composer Sun Ra, an early collaborator who also sheltered him, encouraged him to use the name Pharoah.

By 1965 he had become a member of Coltrane's band. Together the saxophonists were at the forefront of the spiritual jazz movement, making music focusing on transcendence and spirituality. They continued to work together until Coltrane's untimely death in 1967.

Over 20 years later, in 1988, Sander's playing on jazz pianist McCoy Tyne's 1987 album "Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane" earned him a Grammy (Best Jazz Instrumental Performance Group).

During his long and impactful solo career, beginning with his 1964 debut "Pharoah's First," Sanders released over 30 albums. His most notable piece, "The Creator Has a Master Plan," comes from his most critically acclaimed effort, 1969's "Karma."

The 32-minute-long free-jazz work evokes Coltrane's masterpiece "A Love Supreme," and it has been called the spiritual successor to the 1964 recording.

His final release, "Promises," a collaborative album with British electronic producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, has been widely lauded by critics. Mark Richardson of Pitchfork called it a "clear late-career masterpiece" for Sanders.

Points, whose real name is Sam Shepherd, shared a touching tribute to his former colleague on Twitter, with a picture of the duo together.

"My beautiful friend passed away this morning," he wrote. "I am so lucky to have known this man, and we are all blessed to have his art stay with us forever. Thank you, Pharoah."

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