Pharoah Sanders and the Underground at the 2013 Guelph Jazzfest ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Pharoah Sanders and the Underground at the 2013 Guelph Jazzfest ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Pharoah Sanders and The Underground
Main Stage, River Run Centre
Guelph Jazz Festival
Saturday, September 7, 2013 – 10 p.m.

View photos of this concert

If you had listened carefully the morning before, you might have forecast what you would hear at Pharoah Sanders' and the Underground's concert at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival.

Sanders is a legendary jazz saxophonist, who played with John Coltrane in his late ensembles in the mid-60s, and then in the 1970s with Alice Coltrane. He's also recorded with McCoy Tyner, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman and many others, and released dozens of his own albums as a leader, playing in contexts ranging from aggressive free improv to more mainstream jazz.

As one of the main headliners at the festival, he was scheduled for a 9 a.m. public interview (jointly with Wadada Leo Smith) at the festival colloquium about his career and his music. Now that early on a Friday morning is not what I would describe as an ideal time for intense rumination, especially not by a jazz musician, or even by many listeners. While Sanders showed up on time, he wasn't particularly forthcoming, and the interviewer's fulsome introduction probably didn't help.

Questions asking him to reflect about why and how he played and his relationship to the audience got mostly short responses. Finally, he simply responded, “I don't feel I have to have an audience: I just play, whatever the spirit tells me to do that's what I do. It never ends. It's just what I do all the time. I don't feel the same way every day. The movements of my fingers ... I just let it happen. I don't come to play music: I come to play me.”

He was also asked about the lineup for his Saturday concert, which would include cornetist Rob Mazurek and musicians from two different groups which Mazurek founded: the São Paulo Underground and the Chicago Underground – and what appealed to him about their sound.

“Well, maybe the electronics” was his laconic reply, and he continued later to say that, “With the electronics, I can lay back and play a lot less”. That response ended up being unexpectedly prescient.

Pharoah Sanders and the Underground hit the main stage of the River Run Centre around 10 p.m. on the following day. They were the second act of a double bill, playing after an energetic and exultant 90 minutes by Wadada Leo Smith and his Golden Quartet, who received a rave reception.

Besides Sanders and Mazurek, the lineup included percussionist Chad Taylor (drums and mbira) from the Chicago Underground. From the São Paulo Underground came Matthew Lux (electric bass), Mauricio Takara (percussion, cavaquinho), and Guilherme Granado (keyboards, electronics).

The show started with an immediate burst of energy from the stage. At first it was primarily percussion and Sanders stood, quietly listening. Then Mazurek entered on cornet, clear and bright. Sanders followed shortly afterwards, playing underneath: his tenor was hard-edged and buzzing. They played anthemic lines in coordination, but they certainly weren't the only music happening on-stage. With the percussion and loud, insistent electronics, it felt almost cluttered.

Sanders played an intense, circling solo, which built as he played, and had vibrating overtones. Then the keyboards took over with a simple riff, and Sanders payed a light, breathy tenor underneath. Then he returned to the foreground, with raw-edged, coruscating lines, which contrasted with the high-pitched, floating cornet notes. Mazurek sped up and Sanders slowed, but the overall feel of the music became steadily louder and more frantic.

From this point, the music became almost a wall of sound, with increasing amounts of distortion. Even when the volume lessened a while later, the most noticeable sounds were the insistent electronic riff and Mazurek's cornet. While Sanders continued to contribute – generally emphatic and raw-edged lines, ranging from light to growls to bluesy – he was occasionally drowned out by the other musicians.

The remaining musicians also contributed – sparkling pizzicato notes on the cavaquinho, drumming that ranged from syncopated to machine-gun, and unfortunately a bit too much unpleasantly loud feedback.

But what frustrated me in the first 40-minute piece is that it just didn't seem to gel. It was all over the place, there was no overarching theme, and I didn't hear the musicians supporting each other overall. The music didn't flow.

The concert continued through five pieces for just under two hours. The audience was enthusiastic, and gave it a standing ovation at the end, but I found it too loud, with an oversupply of Mazurek's cornet and Granado's electronics. While there were some lovely individual moments from several of the musicians (Granado's light tones on keyboards from playing with mallets, for example), it also felt both repetitive and as though it wasn't going anywhere.

Sanders repeatedly moved away from the centre of the stage, often sitting down and listening to the other musicians (and even dancing in place), but letting others have the limelight.

The piece which fitted together best was the second-last, which started with a fluid bluesy intro, and moved into a strong danceable beat with a Latin feel. It then was interrupted by Sanders' harsh-edged tenor for a fast, coruscating solo followed by an equally fast and coordinated guitar solo. Mazurek and Sanders played an anthemic duet, which built into vibrating circles, modulated down, and then abruptly got very loud again. They traded the lead, the music rushed onwards, and then ended abruptly.

The last piece, unfortunately, started with strong electronic feedback, and featured very high, piercing electronics and an over-loud background sound which drowned out some of Sanders' solos and Mazurek's singing.

Ultimately, the combinations just didn't work in this concert. There was too much sound, and not enough engaging music. There was lots of talent on-stage (Mazurek was wonderful, for example, in last year's ROVA Electric Ascension), but the whole was too busy, too blaring, and didn't show off what the musicians could do.

    – Alayne McGregor

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Read more about the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival: