Pharoah Sanders, Denys Baptiste and Alina Bzhezhinska make for cosmic concert for Alice and John Coltrane

Banks of lights sketch out a looming angel presence on the backcloth as Alina Bzhezhinska sits at the harp and strikes an introductory chord. She reproduces Alice Coltrane's trembling flurries of high notes and swooping glissandos with uncanny accuracy, and her intensely physical relationship with her harp is mesmerising to watch. After a chiming solo sets the scene, she cues in Larry Bartley and Joel Prime who come in like thunder as Tony Kofi strides forward into the spotlight from the blue-lit wings and the band burst into 'Blue Nile'. It's the first spectacular emotional sucker-punch of the evening. The band sound great: Bartley's big-toned, magisterial bass solo draws whoops of applause, as does the climactic duet between harp and Kofi's clear-voiced soprano on 'Journey in Satchidananda' – and Alina's eccentrically effervescent personality shines through, bringing a real sense of joy.

Baptiset-Barbican2

Next up is Denys Baptiste's outfit (above), an altogether a more considered production, with Baptiste asking the audience to imagine themselves sitting on top of Everest, quipping "don't worry about the oxygen" before launching into an Expression-era group free improv, complete with electronic tambura. Next the band sets up a heavy groove reminiscent of 1970s Miles, over which Baptiste initiates a dialogue of increasing frenzy with a kimono-clad Nikki Yeoh that has the latter up off of her seat before drummer Rod Youngs lashes the kit up to the finish line. There's a duet with Yeoh on 'Peace On Earth', which allows Baptiste to give free rein to his powerful chops, then a reworking of 'After The Rain' with a simple extended major-key vamp over which Yeoh shows her impressive imagination before the piece subsides into an incongruous reggae-lite groove. Surprise guest Steve Williamson, louche and elegant in a rumpled suit, joins the leader in an extended two-tenor freak-out over Young's boiling beats – his powerful, cutting tone a reminder of just what a singular force he is; then everyone leaves the stage but Baptiste and Bartley, the bassist setting up a bolero bassline while the saxophonist shows off his awesome technique on the effect-enhanced horn.

Pharoah S-Barbican

Expectations are running high by the as Pharoah Sanders (above and top) himself is announced. The band walk onstage and the audience rises to its feet as a frail, hunched figure moves with infinite slowness from the darkness of the wings; cautiously climbing the stairs and slowly moving centre stage. Yet, once he lifts his horn to the mic the sound that emerges is undiminished – a clear powerful clarion. The band swell into a rippling crescendo as he blows a simple sequence of three falling tones, like a child's rhyme, fading away into a single held note so high and faint that it seems to suck all the sound in the room into itself, creating a concentrated vacuum of absolute silence, and the packed hall holds its breath in a moment of total stillness. Then suddenly, improbably, he blasts out the head to Trane's 'Lazy Bird' and pianist William Henderson leads the band into a crashing tide of high-speed virtuosic free-bop. Sanders sits impassively on a strategically placed chair, head bowed, as bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer Gene Calderazzo give a good account of themselves. Then he's back up again, entering with squall of notes, effortlessly riding the rhythm. Next, another surprise. A solo rendition quickly takes shape as 'A Nightingale Sang In Berkely Square', as Henderson enters, sketching out the background with deft strokes. Sanders sounds fantastic – agile, clear, impassioned – age hasn't diminished his talent, even if it has led him to be more economical in its deployment. The speed and facility over changes he acquired in later years is still there, and while the tone no longer screams as it did with Trane there's a diamond hardness still at its core as well as a confidence in the phrasing that betokens an absolute unwavering belief in the message of his music. After Hayhurst's monumental solo he returns with a spectral, unaccompanied cadenza, each note falling through the silence like a snowflake.

Next a scarlet-jacketed Chaouki Smahi appears onstage and takes up his oud, to lead the band into a hypnotic ostinato that turns into an extended flamenco-tinged jam, Sanders entering and leaving at intervals, his contributions never less than riveting, before the band return to a swelling minor key rubato against which the leader plays starkly beautiful, towering phrases, like mountain peaks against a darkening sky. Then the mood changes again.

Hayhurst and Calderazzo set up the familiar line for 'The Creator Has A Master Plan', and Sanders, turning and facing the crowd for the first time, is suddenly all approachable geniality, introducing the band with palpable warmth, beaming smiles between his snow-white beard and impressive moustache. Getting the audience to sing along as the beat shifts to a sprightly calypso, he essays some shuffling dance steps and executes a cautiously arthritic twerk, to rapturous applause. "My name is Farrell Sanders, and I play the tenor saxophone," he says, then breaks into a hoarse-voiced, raucous wordless folk melody. Somehow it's the most uplifting moment of the evening: a simple affirmation of life, music and everything by one of jazz's true visionaries. The only less-than-cosmic aspect of the evening is the unsympathetic Barbican sound: all harsh, over-amplified bass, with the piano often almost completely swallowed up in the blurry sonic fog. Such masters deserve more.

– Eddie Myer
– Photos by Tim Dickeson

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