Pharoah Sanders recorded the songs that comprise Thembi in the winter of ’70/’71, following closely on the heels of a session with Alice Coltrane that would become her masterpiece Journey in Satchidananda LP. The same compelling spirituality that embued Coltrane’s masterpiece with a mood of stately calm and grace pervades Thembi.
The album opens with the radiant “Astral Traveling,” an ideal concinnity of sound that functions as an aural smudge-stick, anointing the spaces it’s played. Could there be a piece of music more perfectly matched to its title? From the first magisterial downbeat, we are gently floating among the stars, buoyed by lush acoustic bass, prayer bells, rippling Fender Rhodes, and, drifting above it all, Pharoah Sanders’s meditative soprano sax. Astoundingly, the recording captures the very first time Lonnie Liston Smith ever touched an electric piano, then a brand-new instrument but one he’d later become inextricably linked with. Smith has said the song was written on the spot as he was experimenting with the novel device, waiting for his bandmates to finish setting up.
Side Two begins with a Cecil McBee statement piece simply titled “Love”—unadorned acoustic bass that never loses your attention throughout its five minutes of purposeful invention. The title track, named for Sanders’s wife, is a loping jazz samba that sports a crisp rhythm and the distinct optimism that a succession of major-7th chords provides. The comfortable modal pulse of “Morning Prayer,” with an atmospheric intro that sees Sanders breaking out the koto (speaking of unusual instruments), is the most overtly spiritual number on the record, but in truth it is all of a piece with the other songs, flowing together to create what is a truly majestic, enveloping work. A more perfect confluence of spiritual jazz and irresistible groove is hard to imagine.