Pharoah Sanders – Karma (Impulse, 2023 reissue)


Karma is one of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders most important releases. Recorded in 1969, it was his third as a leader, and featured a long suite, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” that was in part an homage to the recently deceased John Coltrane, with whom Sanders had performed and recorded. Coltrane’s own extended suite, “A Love Supreme,” is quoted during “Karma,” and the use of a vocal refrain and free jazz solos on top of modal harmonies also hearken back to “A Love Supreme.”


Impulse has reissued the recording as a lushly appointed 180-gram vinyl LP and the sonic upgrade is significant. Despite the welter of musical activity in frequently thick textures, one can hear the distinct instruments well, from the lowest notes of the bass to the mingling of improvisations in the upper register. The presence of the piano is particularly noteworthy, revealing modal comping that was recessed on my older copy of the recording. 


The supporting musicians on Karma are strictly A-list. Leon Thomas lends howling vocals and percussion. James Spaulding plays the flute. Nonstandard in a free jazz context is the French horn, but Julius Watkin’s forceful playing fits right in. The pianist is Lonnie L. Smith Jr. Three bassists appear – Richard Davis, Reggie Workman and, on the final track, Ron Carter. Nathan Bettis contributes percussion, and William Hart and Frederick Waits play the drums. Sanders’ playing is poetic, sculpted from melodic inventions and altissimo shrieks, it has a clear sense of trajectory and is abundantly expressive. 


The suite lasts a side and a half of the LP. There is an additional cut, “Colors,” which features impassioned and soulful, rather than shouted, vocals from Thomas. The two bassists create overlapping duets. For the most part, Sanders lets Thomas have the spotlight, providing elegant melodic responses to his singing.


Karma serves as a template for many of the musical and spiritual topics that would occupy Sanders throughout much of his career. It is excellent to have such a generous-sounding and visually attractive reissue made. Snatch one up!


-Christian Carey