John's Karmic journey

James McNair
Mojo Magazine #81

At the age of 20, John Martyn was struck by a bolt of karmic lightning. It's never left him.

'When you get loaded, this album opens your head up to a different thing. I've chosen it because it taught me the value of sustain. My parents were big classical music fans obsessed with that belcanto, operatic sustain, regardless of the cost to the lungs or the ears. With Sanders it was different; beautiful, long notes but with breath and gurgling in between. His tone blew my mind and he gave me a glimpse through a keyhole that I didn't even know existed.'

'I first heard it in a village called Chilham in Kent. Chilham was appropriate, 'cos we were all blasted. I'd be about 20. It was just after the release of Stormbringer [1970]. There was a rehearsal studio there, and I was socialising with a band called Neu Nadir, who were being produced by Joe Boyd, later famous for his stuff with Nick Drake. The horn players in Nadir were total Chicanos. Lovely people, but to them Sanders was just jazz shit. The rest of us went to another part of the building and put Karma on. Something in me just went 'Pop!' It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning.'

'Up until then I'd listened to folk music and R&B stuff like Sonny Boy Williamson, but I hadn't got into jazz at all. I'm basically Buddhist in belief and the record struck a chord there too. I've never met Sanders, so for all I know he could be a right arsehole. I'd never heard someone play so emotionally, though, with that sense of humanity. It's an enormously spiritual record, and you have to remember that it was recorded in the days of black activism. My impression is that Sanders and Thomas shared a certain philosophy, and that they were part of that hip élite who drew a lot of their inspiration from Coltrane. At the time I was your archetypal, sandal-wearing hippie, so all of that stuff appealed.'

'I'm 51 now, so it's about 30 years since I first heard the record. I used to play it constantly, but until today I hadn't played it in twelve years. I love the fact that, while all the bebop saxophonists were obsessed with speed -you know, Flight Of The Bumblebee with jazz inflections- Pharoah was going (makes sustained, soulful, parping noise on one note). He was the first musician to convince me that you didn't have to show off to be good. In his own way, he was showing off, too, of course. Nobody else can do what he does.'

'I don't think I would have done some of the stuff on Inside Out [1973] if I hadn't heard Karma. The only reason I bought the Echoplex was to try and imitate Sanders' sustain on my guitar. The other stuff I did with the Echoplex came later, by accident.1 Years back, his saxplaying also influenced my vocal phrasing, but not so much now.'2

'I haven't got a clue how the record was recorded, but it sounds great. Some of it comes across as quite chaotic, as though the sound of the New York traffic was an influence. It's very raw and bluesy, and you can hear that African tribal thing in the percussion. Even though all the musicians are jazz heavyweights, there's nothing scholastic about it. How refreshing. How Heineken (laughs).'

'Some of my favourite bits are the intros; the sax melody at the start of Colors, for example. The jazz-yodelling that Leon Thomas does on the first track is amazing too. Later, that inspired me to go out and buy his Live In Berlin album.'

'Do I recognise the person I was when I first heard Karma? Yeah, I was very innocent and unformed when I first heard this, and I see young musicians with the same ideals everywhere. For me, hearing Pharoah condensed four or five years of adulthood into a few minutes. My daughter gave me his latest album as a present recently, so I still have a relationship with him. But I don't want to know anything about the man's personal life. That would spoil it for me.'

Interview by James McNair

1 This story is told in the liner notes of the BBC Radio 1 live album. John was more specific in his 2008 Uncut interview with Rob Young: "Yeah, it was the day the WEM Copicat broke down. I was using it to try and extend the sound of the fuzztone on the guitar, so I could play the same note for half an hour if I felt like it and twitch it now and again. And I bought the Echoplex, and completely by chance I found out you could make rhythmic noises with it. I was actually looking for sustain. I wanted to sound like Pharoah Sanders, actually." The WEM Copicat was used on Bless The Weather, the Echoplex came on Solid Air.
2 John is probably referring to his Strangled Duck vocals from John Wayne. But in the Cooltide period he also invented the Choking Horse.

Pharoah Sanders
Recorded: RCA Studios, New York City, February 14 and 19, 1969
Released: 1969, 1995
Chart Peak: None
Personnel: Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax), Leon Thomas (vocals, percussion), James Spaulding (flute), Julius Watkins (French horn), Lonnie Liston Smith Jr (piano), Richard Davis, Reggie Workman, Ron Carter (bass), William Hart, Freddie Waits (drums), Nathaniel Bettis (percussion).
Tracks: 1) The Creator Has A Master Plan
2) Colors
After providing his famously ferocious sax solos for the John Coltrane Quintet from 1965 to 1967, Sanders moved to Impulse and, with Leon Thomas, settled into a genre of meandering spiritual chant-like jazz. Karma, his most popular album, became an unexpected hit with late '60s 'heads' looking for the ultimate aural trip.

This story featured in a series 'Last Night A Record Changed My Life'.