Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders passed away last week at the age of 81. Sanders’s music is a singular, almost indescribable synthesis of sonic strands that crosses genres and generations, making him a revered figure among free jazzers, psychedelic rockers, and experimental folkies, alike. “There is the aura of legend surrounding the business of Pharoah Sanders. The fez, the dashiki, the Egyptian Prince goatee and the very name conjures instant ancient mystical power….,” Chris Ingram wrote in 2000:
His music… is known for its transcendental qualities, its aspiration to healing power and spiritual heights, its evocation of the primeval, the celestial, the ecstatic. Primitive chants and hypnotic bass vamps adorned with bells, harps and percussive exotica pound unstoppably on like the heartbeat of the universe and at the center the proud horn of the man they call Pharoah. It’s a singing, noble sound, often meditative and long-note lyrical, sometimes a cathartic split-reed howl.
This fourteenth installment of “The Best Version Of…” discusses saxophonist Sanders’s legendary 1969 album, Karma, which did more than perhaps any other release to popularize the contested subgenre known as “spiritual jazz.”
Sanders was born Farrell Sanders on October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a school cafeteria cook and a city worker. Both his love of music and his spiritual bent were instilled early on by his family. “My grandfather was a music teacher… he also taught mathematics… and he really got me interested in music,” Sanders explained in a 1967 interview. “He showed me and my brother and sister how to play the piano. He used to play in church and my mother would be singing in the choir.”
Sanders first tried his hand at drums before switching to tuba, clarinet, and, eventually, tenor saxophone. He received his first — and some of his only — formal training in music at the segregated Sipio Jones High School in North Little Rock. “Jimmy Cannon was my band teacher — he’s the one that got me started. I owe everything to him,” Sanders told Ashley Kahn in 2008:
He was a very serious-minded person and a great trumpet player. Very outgoing, but when it came to music you better be quiet because he might throw something at you. I used to listen to him so much and I didn’t want to go to any other class. I found a way to cut a lot of my classes so I could come up to the band room and listen to him. I would miss English class and it got to be where the teacher asked me, “Mr. Sanders, are you going to come to class this week? You know the test is gonna be Friday.” But she understood. Everybody in the school knew where I was.
His first love was rhythm and blues, and as his talent grew, he began backing stars like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Junior Parker on tour stops in Little Rock. But he was anxious to escape the oppression of the city’s Jim Crow laws. “I left Arkansas in about 1959,” he told Pollstar in 2019:
Arkansas was so racist, I had to get out of there. It wasn’t too good for people like me. I wanted more, so I left and went to Oakland where I had a lot of relatives, my mother’s brothers and sisters. It was a lot better there. In Arkansas you had to play behind the curtain. They didn’t want to see black people. They fed us, we had our little place where we ate, but they didn’t allow white people in there. Most of the jobs I played, a lot of parties and weddings, that’s how it was.
By then, Sanders had shifted from R&B into jazz. As he told Martin Williams in his book Jazz Changes, “By this time I was listening to Sonny Rollins, who was a big influence at first; John Coltrane, who was a later big influence; and Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, Hank Mobley and Horace Silver’s group. I loved Benny Golson on Moaniri with Art Blakey.”
On the advice of friends, Sanders left the Bay Area after just a few years and moved to ground zero of the jazz scene, New York City, in 1961. It wasn’t an easy transition. Sanders was homeless for his first few years in the city. “I didn’t have one thing to my name, no place to go, or nothing. I don’t know how I survived. I was hungry,” he remembered in 2019:
I saw a place where you give blood and make some money. It was on 42nd Street and I was paid $5 and went and bought some small hamburgers. I would walk into the movies and sleep all day long. At night I would walk all the way back downtown where the clubs were on Bleecker Street. I wasn’t thinking about, “Am I going to make it.” I was just walking with my horn. I used to live off of pizza. When I made $5 from giving blood, I bought pizza. If I got hungry, I’d eat wheat germ…. With the money I made from giving blood, I used to ride the subway. I didn’t know anything about the subway. I would ride the subway until the end of the line and then come back. I would go to Washington Square Park and sit on a bench with my horn in my hand. I used to try to sleep, but I could hardly sleep because I was thinking somebody might grab my horn….
But New York — and the Village neighborhood, in particular — proved to fertile ground for Sanders to absorb cutting-edge jazz. “I was on the outside [of clubs], because I couldn’t come in looking like I was looking,” he continued. “I’d come around and listen to [Thelonious] Monk through the windows. I looked pretty bad at that time, so I can understand why they didn’t want anybody hanging around the club. People were just getting out of their limousines and suits and ties and all that. I’m on the street, with the shoes I’d been walking around with, hair [messy].”
In New York, Sanders changed his first name from Farrell to Pharoah. Despite the common story (repeated in the obituaries published by the New York Times and Pitchfork, among others) that Sun Ra gave Sanders the nickname, that story — like much of Sanders’s under-reported life — is legend rather than fact. “I read some interviews, somebody said Sun Ra gave me my name (chuckles a little), or something like that. He didn’t give me my name,” he told Mojo’s Dave DiMartino:
I used that name before we ever even met, before I’d ever even known about who Sun Ra was. My grandmother, she named me from the Bible. At first, she named me “Pharoah,” then she decided that might be a little hard, getting along with the system, I guess, so she decided to name me Ferrell. So when I moved to New York, later on, I had to join the musicians’ union, and they give you documents to fill out. And one thing I read is that you could have an artist’s name, so I decided to put “Pharoah,” and that’s how that got started. A lot of people used to call me “Rock” or “Little Rock,” until I started recording. They found out what my real name was, but they didn’t spell it right either – they called me “Pharaoh.” They never did know my real name, my real first name.
Battling homelessness, Sanders took any gigs he could get, large or small. “One time I got a job just walking around in Greenwich with my horn,” he told Pollstar. “A guy asked ‘Do you play any? I got a job for you. I’ll pay $10.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’ The job was playing saxophone and piano. I didn’t have no clean clothes, I had nothing, except my horn.”
While playing around the city, Sanders gained the attention of Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, and John Coltrane. “At the Speakeasy on Bleecker Street was where Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane came and sat down by the door,” he explained. “I was playing, me and C Sharp [Clarence “C” Sharpe], and I looked toward the door and saw them sitting with their arms folded on their chests. I turned back around and said, ‘Is that John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy?’ So I said, ‘I’d better play it right now,’ they kind of scared me.”
As Sanders gained attention, his gigs improved. In 1964, he played with the Sun Ra Arkestra. That same year, he recorded his debut, Pharoah’s First, for New York-based jazz label ESP. But his big break came the following year, when Coltrane asked Sanders to join his band. It was a challenge that Sanders wasn’t sure he was ready for. “It just seemed to me like he needed some help to try and do something different,” he told Ingram in 2000. “It wasn’t about my playing, it wasn’t like he needed me in the band, he just wanted some different things. I just felt I could have been a little more, erm, intellectual. I wasn’t ready to play with a John Coltrane. I was still studying, still learning how to play on chord changes, stuff like that.”
The titles of the two 1966 studio albums that Sanders recorded with Coltrane, Ascension and Meditations, made clear that Coltrane’s new music with Sanders aimed to bridge the earthly and the astral planes. Though released under Coltrane’s name, Sanders served as a co-equal soloist on Meditations. Sanders’s playing — which could invoke the human voice, the natural environment, or the urban landscape — was, as Jon Pareles put it, “a force of nature: burly, throbbing and encompassing, steeped in deep blues and drawing on extended techniques to create shrieking harmonics and imposing multiphonics. He could sound fierce or anguished; he could also sound kindly and welcoming.”
“I listen to things that maybe some guys don’t,” Sanders explained to the New Yorker’s Nathaniel Friedman in 2020. “I listen to the waves of the water. Train coming down. Or I listen to an airplane taking off.”
Coltrane praised Sanders’s technique. “What I like about Pharoah,” Coltrane told jazz critic Nat Hentoff in 1967, “is the strength of his playing, the conviction with which he plays. He has will and spirit, and those are the qualities I like most in a man.” The first track on Meditations, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” also birthed one of the most famous formulations in jazz. According to famed saxophonist Albert Ayler, Coltrane’s song was meant to convey that, “Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, [and] I am the Holy Ghost.”
Meanwhile, Ornette Coleman called Sanders “probably the best tenor player in the world,” and Hentoff declared that Sanders’s sound was “about cleaning the mirror into the self, going as far through the looking glass as is possible each time.”
But not everyone appreciated Coltrane’s new protégé. Some critics bristled at Sanders’s uninhibited style, which stood in sharp contrast to Coltrane’s precise virtuosity. In 1966, for example, the New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett compared Sanders’s solos to “elephant shrieks, which went on and on and on” and “appeared to have little in common with music.” Even positive reviews could be condescending, such as when the San Francisco Chronicle’s Dennis Hunt called Sanders’s sound “primitive” and “nerve-wracking.”
For his part, Sanders couldn’t care less about the views of critics. “I don’t worry about who writes stuff like that,” he told Graham Reid in 2009 with a laugh. “I don’t have nothin’ to do with them and I have no respect for them anyway. I don’t listen to stuff like that, it doesn’t bother me one bit. It don’t bother me. I just go and play and play for people who want to hear my music.”
While a member of Coltrane’s band, Sanders also played on one of Coleman’s albums, two Don Cherry albums, and recorded his second solo release, Tauhid. When Coltrane passed away in 1967 at the age of 40, the 27-year-old Sanders and the 31-year-old Ayler were the left to carry the mantle. When Ayler died just three years later, Sanders was the lone member of the “trinity” left.
Thrust out on his own by Coltrane’s death, Sanders took his already singular style and shaped a new sonic landscape. “I was aware [of the change in my music after Coltrane’s death],” he told Ingram in 2000:
Working with John, we were playing free. Free-form was really popular in New York and in Europe too, I think. Archie Shepp had made an album with Impulse, and there was a lot of noise behind that. I was supposed to be on that but he couldn’t get in touch with me, so I missed that. I wanted to do some of the things that I’d been wanting to do with life. So when Impulse approached me, I decided I wanted to do a particular kind of album.
That “particular kind of album” was Karma, the first in a remarkable run of eleven albums released between 1969 and 1973 that helped define “spiritual jazz,” a subgenre often credited to Sanders, Ayler, and Coltrane, whose liner notes to A Love Supreme declared the album “a humble offering to Him.”
Yet, like many categories, the moniker spiritual jazz was imposed on the music by critics and historians after the fact, and some feel that it misleadingly divorces the music from the social and political upheaval of the era. “[N]ot only is spiritual jazz a somewhat vague aesthetic marker,” Max Brzezinski writes in his book Vinyl Age, “it also belies the fact that the music carried over an intensified political liberation from the 1960s.”
As Andy Beta notes in his Pitchfork article on the subgenre:
In the summer of 1965, in the midst of the civil rights movement, simmering racial tensions erupted in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, leading to 34 deaths, hundreds of destroyed buildings, and thousands of arrests. In the aftermath of the Watts riots, nearby UCLA student Maulana Karenga envisioned a holiday called Kwanzaa that would incorporate African, Arabic, and Swahili traditions and “give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” It wasn’t the only alternative to arise in opposition to America’s dominant Christianity of the time, as Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam was ascendant, along with ideas of Eastern mysticism. During the tumultuous ‘60s, there was a religious revolution to accompany the grand societal, sexual, racial, and cultural shifts already afoot.
Concurrently, the era’s primary African-American art form reflected such upheaval in its music, too: Jazz began to push against all constraints, be it chord changes, predetermined tempos, or melodies, so as to best reflect the pursuit of freedom in all of its forms. Rather than the Tin Pan Alley standards, modal explorations, and cool poses that previously defined the genre, there was now chaos, noise, and tumult to be found. And amid the disorder out on the street and on the bandstand was also a quest for a spiritual center, a search for communion with the divine.
Instead of existing on a plane above politics, spiritual jazz is as inextricably linked with the African American politics of the ‘60s as spirituals were to the experience of slavery. For good reason, Brzezinski refers to spiritual jazz as “the musical offshoot of the political Black Arts Movement,” which Larry Neal famously called the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of Black Power.”
The most famous Black Arts Movement writers recognized jazz — and spiritual jazz, in particular — as central to the burgeoning aesthetic of black nationalism. In his 1966 essay, “The Changing Same,” Amiri Baraka wrote:
The new music began by calling itself “free,” and this is social and is in direct commentary on the scene it appears in. Once free, it is spiritual. But it is soulful before, after, any time, anyway. And the spiritual and free and soulful must mingle with the practical, as practical, as existent, anywhere.
The R&B people left the practical God behind to slide into the slicker scene, where the dough was, and the swift folks congregated. The new jazz people never had that practical God, as practical, and seek the mystical God both emotionally and intellectually.
John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Sun-Ra, Pharoah Sanders, come to mind immediately as God-seekers. In the name of energy sometimes, as with Ayler and drummer Sonny Murray. Since God is, indeed, energy. To play strong forever would be the cry and the worshipful purpose of life….
Music as the consciousness, the expression of where we are… And the social consciousness displayed in that music. Pharoah Sanders will say OMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM
MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. Which is more radical than sit-ins. We get to Feel-Ins, Know-Ins, Be-Ins.
Black Arts writers took inspiration from the music. In 1969, Sonia Sanchez published “On Seeing Pharoah Sanders Blowing” in the Journal of Black Poetry. A few years later, Askia Muhammad Touré’s poem “Extension” declared:
Let the Ritual begin:
Sun Ra, Pharoah, Coltrane, Milford tune up your Afro-horns;
let the Song begin, the Wild Song of the Black Heart:
E X T E N S I O N over the crumbling ghettoes, riding
the deep, ominous night – the Crescent Moon, Evening Star;
the crumbling ghettoes exploding exploding: BAROOM, BAROOM!
While Sanders’s interviews were peppered with spiritual observations and references to yoga and healthy eating, he mostly seemed content to let his music do the talking. “It’s not about race… it’s about music,” he said in 1967, responding to a question about the “the civil rights situation” in the United States:
I really don’t know too well what is happening there. This thing has to be solved on a personal level but for that we will need all the strength we have. And I am just trying to play my horn and make music and I have a hard time keeping up with that…. To bring out what’s inside of me seems the only solution. We have to bring out God. God is everything, he is all colors and that’s really not so important. What I’m playing is about that, is about everything that is in me. I don’t look at things and try to make them into something else what they really are not. Everything is everything, all the time. And I really don’t want to be worried about anything, newspapers, Vietnam, like that. I like to feel free. I want to gather as much knowledge about life as I can, no matter where it comes from. You know, even if it’s a drunk man, if he is talking some good sense, I’ll listen to him. He might have had a lot of experiences I can learn from…. You have to become very wise and aware so that you can start to know when things will be coming to you.
Nonetheless, everything from Sanders’s Afrocentric fashion to his incorporation of African, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and Indian elements into his music at a time when the very validity of non-European culture was in question made an undeniable statement. “The whole musical persona of Pharoah Sanders is of a consciousness in conscious search of a higher consciousness,” Baraka wrote.
Sanders’s spirituality was eclectic and all-encompassing. As David Grundy notes, Sanders’s “titles to tracks and albums evoking a fusion of religious traditions from Hinduism and Buddhism (Karma) to Islam (Summun Bukmun Umyun, ‘Hum-Allah,’ Tauhid) to Christianity (a euphoric version of the spiritual ‘Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord,’ made famous by the Edwin Hawkins Singers).”
“I look at all religions and just put them all into one, you know,” Sanders told Jazz Times’ Ashley Kahn in 2008. “That’s what I do. It’s like a personal kind of thing. I don’t go to a church or mosque, I’m here every day doing my own thing. But I try and pray all the time. The day’s like one big prayer to me, not at any one time.”
Indeed, Sanders insisted that the creation of spiritual jazz flowed from his personal spiritual quests and creative impulses. “It just happened,” he explained in 2020. “That’s the way I look at it. It just happened. I was never satisfied with my playing, for a long, long time. Still sort of have problems like that.” A year later, he was a little more forthcoming with Mojo’s DiMartino about the label, saying, “I always look at music as a kind of very spiritual thing anyway. So I never have to go to it. It is all around me.”
The defining characteristic of Sanders’s music — whether one called it spiritual jazz or not — was a focus on the heart rather than the head. Sanders may have lamented that he wasn’t yet “intellectually” ready to play with Coltrane, but there was no little doubt that he had few peers when it came to imbuing his playing with a soulful depth. “I don’t try to put myself in any kind of bag,” he said in 1967. “But I like to play with musicians who have a spiritual awareness and the creative people who are really trying to do all over again what already has been done....”
“Naturally, you have elements of music and musical skills to work with,” he told Williams, “but once you’ve got those down, I think you should go after feelings. If you try to be too intellectual about it, the music becomes too mechanical…. I’m not trying to do something that is over somebody’s head. My aim is to give people something. When I give them something, they can give me something — the energy to continue.”
That energy was in full force on Karma. The album contains just two tracks: the 33-minute long “The Creator Has a Master Plan” and the five-minute “Colors.” The album was recorded in just two days — one for each track. The former was committed to tape on February 14, 1969. The latter, five days later on the 19th.
The album was recorded at RCA Studios in New York City with the legendary Bob Thiele serving as producer and the equally accomplished Bob Simpson engineering. In addition to this top-notch production-engineering team, Sanders brought in some of the best jazz musicians of the era. The lineup for “The Creator Has a Master Plan” was Sanders on tenor sax, Leon Thomas on vocals and percussion, both Richard Davis and Reggie Workman on bass, Lonnie Liston Smith, Jr. on piano, William Hart on drums, Nathaniel Bettis on percussion, Julius Watkins on french horn, and James Spaulding on flute. “Colors” had a slightly and smaller different lineup, with Sanders on tenor sax, Thomas on vocals and percussion, Freddie Waits on drums, Workman and Ron Carter on bass, Smith Jr. on piano, and Watkins on french horn.
There’s some uncertainty, however, about which RCA Studio in New York was used. In the late-’60s, the company moved from its old studios at 155 East 24th Street to newly build studios at 1133 6th Avenue. Depending on the source, the move happened sometime between 1967 and 1969. Both a 1989 Mix magazine article and a 1999 Studio Sound article say the move happened in ‘67, and someone who worked on the off-Broadway cast recording of Hair, recorded in late-October of 1967, says that it was one of the first recordings cut in the new 6th Avenue studios. However, in August of that year, the New York Times reported that RCA had leased space at 1133 from the Durst Organization (yes, that Durst) and planned to construct a studio. According to the Times, RCA “plan in late 1968 to move out of the building at 155 East 24th Street that they have occupied since 1955.” Making matters more complicated, a Swing & Beyond article places the move in 1968, while other sources say 1969. No source gives a month for the move. In August of 1970, Harold C. Schonberg of the Times wrote a long report on the new RCA Studios. In that article, Al Stevens, the manager of the new studios, referred to “the very first session we ever held, in Studio C about a year and a half ago,” which would be early-1969.
If Karma was recorded at the new 6th Avenue studios, it would've been in one of the larger rooms — Studio A or Studio B. Given that the studios were located in a six-story building in Midtown Manhattan, the designers focused on elimination of noise and vibrations. “There is, first of all, an 8-inch reinforced concrete slab [for the floor],” Stevens told Schonberg. “Below that, suspended on vibration eliminators, is a plaster ceiling with insulation on top…. Then, below the plaster ceiling, there is suspended an acoustic ceiling.” Due to issues with RCA’s other studios either being too reverberant or too dry, the new RCA studios offered varying decay times. Studio A also featured motorized moveable wall and ceiling panels to change the size of the room and its decay. According to Schonberg, “Studio A… can handle opera and symphony, and its reverberation time can be altered from 1.9 seconds (about the same as Carnegie Hall’s) to .8 seconds. Studio B is used for semiclassical and pop recordings.” Finally, the new 6th Avenue studios featured 16-track consoles.
However, in an interview with me, Lonnie Liston Smith remembered the sessions as taking place at the old 24th Street studios. If so, that would explain Sanders's frustration (discussed later) with the fact that his sax had to recorded to the same track as the bass. But Smith also made clear that he couldn't say for certain which studio was used.
Regardless of the specific recording location, the stunning result speaks for itself.
Perhaps no song better encapsulates spiritual jazz than the sprawling, transcendent “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” The track was cowritten by Sanders and Thomas, with the former contributing the music and the latter contributing (with Sanders’s input) the lyrics.
“Master Plan” opens with a dramatic line from Sanders’s alto, panned center. Barely a second later, the band enters and builds to a quick crescendo. The drums sit in the center, the bass center-right, and the flute far left. A panoply of auxiliary percussion, mixed far left and far right, creates swirling chaos. Around the two-minute mark, almost everything drops away to showcase the bass riff that anchors the track. Next, a shaker and wooden agogo enter, followed by what sounds like a xylophone panned far left and two zithers, which ping-pong from left to right before playing in near-unison. Spaulding’s flute then begins mirroring the bass just as one of the bassists splits of and begins playing what will later be the key vocal melody. Sanders’s sax reenters, at first emphasizing the two root notes of the bass riff, before soaring above the rest of the mix with an alternately smooth and jarring melody. As this unfolds, the various instruments evolve, darting in and out of the mix. For example, around the 3:15 mark, Hart’s reverberant drumming, buried deep in the mix, becomes ever more arrestingly forceful.
It’s a unison of performance and mix is almost impossible to do justice to in words. At only four minutes into a half-hour long track, “Master Plan” has offered an innumerable number of sonic delights, always keeping the ear surprised and engaged — something that continues throughout the track. Perhaps my favorite playing by Sanders comes between six and seven minutes, just before Thomas’s vocals enter.
"Master Plan" is the sound of virtuoso musicians given the freedom to take their playing to unexpected places. "We all were all doing different things with our instruments," Smith said. "I wanted more sounds out of the acoustic piano because you’ve only got 10 fingers. So I was thinking, 'How can I get more sounds out of it?' Sometimes I would just use my whole forearm — not banging though, still making it musical. Pharaoh could sound like he was playing two or three different notes at one time. I said to him, 'Wow, you’re doing something different with your horn,' and he said, 'Well, you’re doing something different with your piano.' And then we heard Leon Thomas yodeling and we said, 'Oh-oh.' That was it and we just got together."
To single out any one element of “Master Plan” for its uniqueness is to undersell the whole track’s ineffable originality. But Thomas’s throaty ululating yodel is certainly the most surprising.
“I met Leon at the Dom on St. Mark’s Place,” Sanders told Ashley Kahn, author of Impulse Records: The House That Trane Built. “It was some sort of a fund-raising event… Elvin Jones was in the room so I got a chance to play with him in more of a bebop situation. And I heard Leon: he was doing some yodeling stuff. It was maybe a blues or something he was doing. I heard him sing a few tunes and after it was over I got his name and number and asked him if he would join my band, because at that time I was doing some things at Slugs.”
Thomas’s repeating lyric is powerful in its simplicity:
The creator has a working plan
Peace and happiness for every man
The creator has a working plan
Peace and happiness for every man
The creator makes but one demand
Peace and happiness through all the land
The creator makes but one demand
Happiness through all the land
The vocalist alternates these lines with a series of “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” lines, which carry the same melody as the lyrics. “Leon came up with the words on that album,” Sanders told Kahn:
I had asked him to write some lyrics for it and he brought them by the house and I didn’t like them. It was something way off limits. I just said, “Naw man, this ain’t happening.” It wasn’t anything that would enlighten people — an inspiration kind of thing. I said, “Leon, I want this to be more of a spiritual type of thing.” Then he understood me a little bit more clearly. So he went home and a couple of nights later he brought by “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” I told him, “That’s what I want you to do!” It’s funny [laughs], when he put the lyrics on Karma, he wrote the lyrics to the bass line; it wasn’t the [melodic] line of the tune.
Near the 9:10 mark, Thomas breaks into his plaintive, throaty yodel. According to Thomas, this piece came together when the band was workshopping “Master Plan” — which was originally titled “Pisces Moon” — live at a church in Jersey City. “When it came time for me on the song, I heard this sound and didn’t know where it was coming from,” Sanders told James Briggs Murray in a 1988 oral history. “A yodel starts happening. The articulation was in the throat. No one had heard it before. The church was the right place for it. It was an extension of or part of ‘tongue’ — [I was] speaking in tongues.”
Around the 11:20 mark, the song shifts gears, returning to the dramatic horn line and percussive cacophony that opens that track. This time, Sanders’s playing is even expressive and acrobatic. “Where the average horn player builds to in intensity and then tails off, that’s Pharoah’s beginning,” Thomas recalled.
Then “Master Plan” again settles down and returns to the track’s anchoring bass riff, with both bassists clearly playing in unison. The next section allows Sanders, pianist Smith Jr., and french horn player Watkins to stretch out, building to a wild peak near the seventeen-minute mark, at which point the auxiliary percussion moves into double time and Thomas’s yodeling reenters.
It’s at this point that the original vinyl, which had to divide the nearly 33-minute song into two sections due to the 22-minute-per-side limitations of the format, fades out.
The second half of “Master Plan” begins in the peak of the sonic chaos that ended the first half of the track. This continues for about four minutes until Sanders’s retreats from wild squawks and leads the band back into a driving melodic riff, which Sanders builds to another exhilarating crescendo before dropping out around 26:10, at which point Thomas unleashes his most ferocious vocalizations.
With about four and a half minutes left, “Master Plan” lurches back into its signature bass groove. After providing the instrumentalists with another chance to showcase their chops, the track slows into a final recitation of the lyrics before gradually fading out.
"At that time, when Pharoah, Leon, and I were together, we didn't have to rehearse that much," Smith told me. "Everything was just so organic, and we were so in tune."
While the track was recorded live in the studio, some overdubs occurred, which Smith says be easily discerned in the final recording: "What happened was, after we after we finished 'The Creator Has a Master Plan,'" Smith remembered, "Bob Thiele called me and he said, 'I want to have a bigger sound, a larger sound.' So I went back in and I did a whole 'nother grand piano [along] with the one that I played [on the original session]. So that made it more fuller. And you could hear in the very beginning, when I went across the strings... I was trying to match it, but I missed it. You'll hear 'bling bling, bling bling.' So I couldn't grab it [in sync] at the very beginning [of the song]."
Though overshadowed by the sprawling “Master Plan,” the comparatively parsimonious “Colors” is just as compelling. With its slightly less dense arrangement, “Colors” gives more sonic space to the individual players. Musically, there’s less of a thru line than on “Master Plan.” Instead, “Colors” feels like one long vamp, always on the edge of falling apart. Whereas on “Master Plan” the recurring bass and horn riffs seemed to tether Thomas’s tumultuous vocal to the rest of the track, on “Colors,” Thomas’s tender singing helps hold the track together.
Lyrically, “Colors” shifts focus away from the heavens and back down to earth, connecting the natural with the cosmic:
Mother Nature seems to love us so
When she smiles there is a subtle glow
And with tears of joy, the happiness flows
I see red and orange and purple
Yellow and blue and green
People say that life is misery
But in him there is no mystery
So he sends to us his rainbow of love
Red and orange and purple
Yellow and blue and green
Fittingly the track ends on one beautiful, sustained note from Sanders’s sax.
Karma was released in May, just three months after it was recorded. It cracked the Billboard 200 — a stunning achievement for a free jazz release and one that Coltrane never achieved — and stayed there for four weeks. The album also made it to number 47 on the R&B album charts. Karma’s sales were in the hundreds of thousands, and it garnered crossover FM airplay. Soon, not just fellow jazz greats like Archie Shepp and Rashied Ali, but also pop artists like Carlos Santana and Hollywood icons Marlon Brando were showing up at Sander’s shows.
"When the record came out," Smith said in our interview, "the whole world seemed like it's what they were waiting for."
According to Thomas, Karma’s impact was felt far and wide across popular music. “Karma was there before ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and ‘What’s Going On,’” Thomas told Briggs Murray. “[After Karma,] Marvin [Gaye] even changed his demeanor, knit caps and beards. Taj Mahal got robes, all from working on shows with us. We had subtle input and influence. There became more spiritual consciousness after that song.”
Sanders, though, wasn’t quite satisfied with how Karma turned out. “You know it sold. People liked it,” he told Kahn. “But I just couldn’t be proud about the engineering part of it. Karma had me and the bass player on the same channel, so they couldn’t turn me up [separately], so it was very horrible to me at the time, you know.”
To my knowledge, there exist only two digital masterings of Karma. The first is the 1989 CD, which — like the original vinyl — splits “The Creator Has a Master Plan” into two parts. The next mastering was first released on the 1995 CD. It presents “The Creator Has a Master Plan” as a single 33-minute track. The credits for this release state “Digitally Remastered by Erick Labson at MCA Music Media Studios, using 20-Bit Super Mapping.” This mastering has been used on every subsequent CD release and is the one that appears on streaming services like Qobuz and Tidal.
At first blush, the 1995 remaster is undeniably louder. But once level matched with Har-Bal, the dynamics of the ‘89 (blue) and ‘95 (red) look almost identical:
The 1995 remaster has a bit more compression and limiting than the original CD in the eight-to-nine minute range of “Master Plan.” However, the ‘95 disc looks a bit more dynamic in other parts of the track. The same is true for “Colors.” In terms of dynamics, I think it’s a draw. The only minor flaw I noted is that the ‘95 disc has a single clipped sample before volume normalization. However, that clipped sample seems to be fixed on later releases of the Labson mastering.
Next let’s take a look the two versions in Har-Bal. In order to allow for comparisons between the two releases, I created my own edit of “Master Plan” matching the edit on the vinyl and ‘89 CD. The gif below shows “Master Plan, Part 1” and “Colors” from the ‘89 CD (purple) and ‘95 mastering (orange) after loudness normalization:
Generally speaking, on “Master Plan” the ‘89 CD has a bit more treble, while the ‘95 mastering has more low end. On “Colors,” the difference in treble is more pronounced, but the difference in bass in reduced. The midrange is very similar on both releases. Overall even the low- and high-end differences are relatively modest.
So how do these two versions sound?*
With only two masterings, one might think the TBVO verdict would come easy. But that’s not the case here.
Both of these CDs sound superb, and each has its own relative pros and cons. The extra treble on the ‘89 disc create a little more overt detail on some high-register instruments. However, that extra high-end also brings the shaker to the fore on “Master Plan,” which can overwhelm other elements, including the vocals. The somewhat more muted high end on the ‘95, in contrast, keeps the shaker from distracting from Thomas’s voice, though this reduced treble also tames more appreciated details. The ‘95 CD’s unambiguous positives are to be found its fuller bass and its better front-to-back depth. At certain moments, such as Thomas’s “tears of joy” line on “Colors,” this depth gives a greater realism compared to the somewhat flatter ‘89 disc. The other factor at play is that, while the ‘89 CD presents Karma as listeners would’ve heard it in 1969, with “Master Plan” split into two tracks, that was merely a concession to the technical limits of vinyl. The song undeniably works better as the unedited 33-minute track presented on the ’95 mastering.
Overall, its better depth and, especially, the unedited “Master Plan” give the ‘95 mastering the slight edge and the TBVO crown, though I’m not confident in that declaration. Given that the ‘95 mastering is the one that’s available on streaming services, it’s easy to sample. But lovers of Karma likely will want to track down the ‘89 disc, too, and Karma is an album aching for an audiophile hi-res remastering.
Regardless of which version of Karma you pick, to listen to Karma is not just to hear something special but also to have one’s soul touched by music. “If somebody listens to me play, he can hear some of my experiences,” Sanders said in 1967. “Personally I am trying to be honest with what I am doing. I am trying to live in a peaceful way and if anybody else can get anything out of my way of living, my way of expressing that state of mind… if they can use it, then that’s good. I’m not trying to convince anybody that what I’m doing is better than what they might be doing, but if we can communicate, we might learn from each other… and I’m not just talking about music now, just in general.”
October 23, 2022: This story has been updated to include quotes from an interview that Lonnie Liston Smith kindly gave me after the original publication of the article.
* For the subjective analyses, all CD editions were ripped with XLD. Files were level-matched using Har-Bal’s loudness matching function. To make comparing these masterings easier, I lined up the level-adjusted versions of each in Audacity and used its solo function for instantaneous switching. Finally, more casual comparisons were done in Audirvana. The main DAC used was a Berkeley Audio Reference Series Alpha DAC with the most recent firmware. I also mixed in a Crane Song Solaris DAC and the Matrix Sabre Pro. Amplification came from a Bryston 4B Cubed power amplifier and a Benchmark HPA4 preamp/headphone amplifier. Most listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including Focal Utopia and ZMF Atrium.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.