History Sifter: Black Unity

Pharoah Sanders is legendary, so it seems odd to discuss him as 'overlooked'. I would argue, though, that his solo career (even its peaks) are overshadowed by his work with both John and Alice Coltrane. His place in the pantheon is eclipsed by the twin pillars of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. In the solar system of free jazz, he is a moon.

Which is a shame, since I personally consider his Black Unity one of the greatest statements of its era. Recorded late in 1971, it's situated shortly after Albert Ayler's passing and well into Miles' fusion expeditions. On it, he seamlessly yolks multiple strains of advanced jazz under one banner—deftly combining both the afro-spiritual and political strains of free jazz with a punchy melody and nearly funky rhythm.

As much this album means to me, I didn't want it on vinyl. Black Unity is a single continuous piece, with such an immersive flow, it seems criminal to interrupt it to flip the record. Perhaps, that fact hurt it when originally released, contributing to it's neglected status—usually taking a back seat even to Sanders' other recordings, like Tauhid or Karma.

Black Unity's ecstatic performances are buttressed by reed drones from North African instruments, lending it an afro-mystical character infused with middle eastern flavors. There is a double rhythm section: Cecil McBee (Pharoah's bassist at the time) is augmented by soon-to-be-fusion-star Stanly Clarke, who's funky vamping turns the proceedings from a protest into a truly wild party.

Somehow, Sanders avoids most of the free jazz, blow-out clichés . Black Unity is not a constant barrage, with everybody wailing, all the time. Neither does it feel like a simple sequence of tag-team soloing. It's episodic, but feels of a whole. It tells a complete story. All the players are dedicated to the spirit of the work. (Compare Black Unity to John Coltrane's Om, where Sanders' and Coltrane's solos are so obviously of a different mind than McCoy Tyner's. It's as if his piano solo were dubbed in from another song.)

Pharoah Sanders has an unassailable and enviable resume: he played with the many of the most pivotal names in jazz history, and is on more than a few landmark records. It's consistently surprises me that Black Unity isn't regularly considered one of them.