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Feel-Ins, Know-Ins, Be-Ins

The most hypnotic piece of music released so far in 2023 was recorded forty-seven years ago in a barely adequate studio in Rockland County, New York.
Pharoah Sanders

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"Harvest Time"

Pharaoh Sanders

Pharaoh Sanders recorded “Harvest Time” in August and September 1976. It filled the entire A-side of his 1977 album Pharoah, his first in a few years. His contract with Impulse Records, the label for which he’d made a string of successful albums, had ended, and he was going through a period of turbulence. Bob and Nancy Cummins, the husband-and-wife team who ran India Navigation Records and revered Sanders, invited him to make a record. Pharoah started out as a duet between Sanders on tenor saxophone and his bassist Steve Neil, but Sanders’s idea for the ensemble quickly grew more ambitious. The Cumminses, fans moonlighting as producers, weren’t prepared, and Sanders was so frustrated by the conditions of the studio in Rockland County that he walked out. After much pleading from the couple, he returned a month later to finish the recording, but he disliked the album and all but disavowed it, and for many years resisted requests to reissue it.

It’s not hard to understand his disappointment. Pharoah did sound a little rickety, more like a bootleg than a professional studio recording. But for the album’s admirers, that lack of polish only enhanced its clandestine aura. (As every fan knows, music you love is all the more beautiful when you’re not supposed to have heard it.) Even as it fell out of print, Pharoah became a cult item, passed around by its admirers, sampled in Talib Kweli’s “Great Expectations.”

Sanders, who died last year at eighty-one, never changed his mind about Pharoah, but after several years of conversations with the label Luaka Bop, he finally agreed to have it reissued. The result is a handsome box set, featuring a luminous remastering of the original album and two live performances of “Harvest Time” from a 1977 European tour along with interviews with Sanders and others, as well as essays by the critics Harmony Holiday, Pierre Crépon, and Marcus Moore, photographs of Sanders, and other memorabilia. The impressive packaging is somewhat improbable for an album that came close to vanishing—and music that seems to vanish each time you hear it. Once “Harvest Time” is over, you might think it was just a dream. Not unlike Kind of Blue, it finds depth in simplicity, a sense of radiant presence in the ephemeral.