Karma is a 1969 jazz recording by the American tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders.


The social and political upheavals of the 1960s have been cited as a major factor in the emergence of a new stylistic trend in jazz, with a very different emphasis to previous sub-genres such as swing, be-bop and hard bop. Many of the artists involved in the making of this new music, variously called ‘energy music’, ‘the new thing’, ‘free jazz’, and ‘spiritual jazz’, released records on Bob Thiele’s Impulse! Records label. As Kahn shows, several musicians, often those who had either played with or been influenced by John Coltrane, such as his widow Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and Leon Thomas, began exploring new thematic and musical ideas, often associated with non-western religious and musical traditions. The new 'spiritual jazz' became a vehicle for exploring new musical and non-musical concepts, as well as for extended self-expression, laying bare "a mirror into the self," as Nat Henthoff put it in his liner notes to John Coltrane's incendiary 1966 recording Meditations, on which Sanders was also featured.

Coltrane had begun the trend with his incorporation of elements of Indian and African music: as early as 1961, he recorded the song ‘India’ at the Village Vanguard with Eric Dolphy and oud player Ahmed Abdoul-Malik, and, in 1965, he recorded ‘Kulu se Mama’ with narration in Entobes by Juno Lewis. The influence of African music was seen as a link to the heritage of the many black musicians involved in jazz, and with some, such as Archie Shepp, it became associated with a defiant expression of black identity, in the fight for freedom and equal rights. Characteristics of the music that was produced included an intense rhythmic focus, the use of exotic instrumentation, and extended, often dissonant, improvisation leading to states of ecstasy or transcendence (which, in some cases, such as that of John Coltrane’s late music, was linked to the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD). Though the ideological strain was much more obvious in Shepp's music than Sanders', the musical influence was just as pronounced: virtually all of his recordings as a leader from this late 60s/early 70s period contain some kind of African percussion, and other non-western features such as Leon Thomas' distinctive yodelling, apparently learnt from African pygmies. In addition, his song titles, like Coltrane’s, often have religious significance: for instance, a tune recorded as ‘Prince of Peace’ on ‘Izipho Zam’ and ‘Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah’ on ‘Jewels of Thought’ (both 1969).

Album informationEdit

‘Karma’ is Sanders’ third recording as a leader, perhaps the most famous of a number of spiritually-themed albums released on the Impulse record label in the late 60s/early 70s, which have ensured his reputation today. Although it is followed by the brief ‘Colors’, the album is most often remembered for one track, the 32-minute long ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan', co-composed by Sanders with vocalist Leon Thomas. Some see this piece as a kind of sequel to Sanders' mentor John Coltrane's legendary 1964 recording 'A Love Supreme' (whose opening it echoes in a muscular yet lyrical opening ‘prelude’, with Sanders playing over a suspended, non-rhythmic backdrop, before the entrance of a bass figure which underpins much of the piece). It features Sanders on tenor sax, along with two of his most important collaborators, the aforementioned Leon Thomas and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, as well as a supporting cast of musicians who were major musicians in their own right: flautist James Spaulding; french-horn player Julius Watkins; bassist Reggie Workman, who had played with Coltrane earlier in the 60s; second bassist Richard Davis, who had appeared on Eric Dolphy’s landmark 'Out to Lunch'; drummer Billy Hart, and percussionist Nathaniel Bettis. While later recorded versions of the tune, some of which featured Sanders and Thomas, became shorter and more lyrical, this original contains extended free instrumental sections, particularly the third section, where the saxophonist demonstrates some of the techniques which build his distinctive sound, including a split-reed technique, overblowing, and multiphonics, which give a ‘screeching’ sound.

On the whole, however, this was quite laid-back and accessible for a free-jazz record (compared to, say, Coltrane's 'Ascension'), with its mantra-like chant/melody, accessible, loping groove ((which has since been sampled and covered by other artists - Sanders himself re-uses it on 'Heart is a Melody of Time (Hikoro's Song)' from his album 'Heart is a Melody') and optimistic, spiritually-themed lyrics. The unusual textures also give an impression of the exotic, with the employment of a French horn and flute, adding an almost orchestral tinge not often found in jazz, as well as Leon Thomas’ characteristic yodelling and a variety of percussion instruments. As Ian Scott Horst comments at (see link at bottom of page), ‘The Creator’ “became a kind of anthem for those exploring the peace, love and happiness vibe through music.” Thus, despite its length, it actually achieved mainstream FM radio airplay, surely the closest the avant-garde movement came to a “hit”, apart from the cult classic 'A Love Supreme', and its popularity with acid jazz and hip-hop artists (see below) attests to its continuing popular status. The influence of the ‘spiritual jazz’ movement, and Sanders’ involvement in particular, can be seen in Sarah Webster Fabio’s 1976 lyrics to ‘Jujus: Alchemy of the Blues’ (the theme music to Doug Schulkind’s show on WFMU radio ( “You prophesied the return of mandolins and tambourines and tinkling bells, and triangles and cymbals, and they sided in on beams from Pharoah Sanders as I slept taking me unaware, tripping, blowing my mind.” (1976)

Track listingEdit

  1. The Creator Has a Master Plan (Sanders, Thomas) (32:46)
  2. Colors (Sanders, Thomas) (5:37)


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