Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & The London Symphony Orchestra: Promises

For me, there are four all-time great saxophonists who shaped how I engage with jazz: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, and Pharoah Sanders. Sanders was given the name Pharoah by astral jazz pioneer Sun Ra, and was at the forefront of the avant-garde jazz movement alongside Coltrane in the mid-to-late 60s (for his work in Coltrane’s band, I’d highly recommend Ascension and The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording). They had different styles that complemented each other and were mutually influential. Sanders’ dissonant, over-blown style influencing Coltrane’s late period works and Coltrane’s spirituality influencing Sanders’ writing as a band leader, especially on one of my all-time favorite jazz records, Karma (he also played on Alice Coltrane’s spiritual masterpiece Journey in Satchidananda). Of the four saxophonists I named above, Rollins and Sanders are the only ones still with us, and Sanders is the only one still releasing music and pushing boundaries.

Floating Points is the alias of British electronic producer Sam Shepherd, who has been releasing music for a little over a decade. However, in just a short span of time he has been able to cover an impressive amount of musical ground. He started out releasing 12”s and EPs with tracks that’d fit in DJ sets perfectly alongside Four Tet and Andy Stott. While he largely returned to this sound with 2019’s excellent Crush, I started paying attention to him when he released his first major artistic detour, 2015’s Elaenia. Gone were the club-ready beats, with Shepherd deconstructing electronic music to its bare elements and, strikingly, branching out into live jazz band arrangements, especially on the standout “Silhouettes (I, II, III)”. With live performances that span from high energy DJ sets to jazz-rock odysseys, Floating Points has proven to be an eclectic and prolific project. Even though his sound changes from release to release, what grounds all of his work is his evocative use of melody, tones, and arrangements.

A 2021 collaboration was not something I was expecting, but it’s one of the greatest surprises I’ve received in a long time. On Promises, Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders are able to combine elements of their distinctive styles into a sound that engages with each of their histories while also creating something unlike anything either have done before. Some have been quick to label this an ambient album, but I can’t engage with it through Brian Eno’s definition as music that can either be listened to closely or used as audio wallpaper. The emotion in this record is far too captivating to me to be able to do anything else while listening to it. For example, different movements came up in a playlist out of order during a picnic the other day, and Sanders’ blasts of saxophone and the London Symphony Orchestra’s swells of strings would pull me out of the conversation and back into the emotion of the record, transcending background noise. Also, I can’t say I’ve ever been dying to see an ambient album performed live.

Promises isn’t an easy album to categorize. It somewhat engages with minimalism through its use of repetition and alterations, but the tone colors change too much to be comparable to Terry Riley or Philip Glass. It shares its form with a typical jazz structure, featuring a motif that functions as a “head”, and improvisations that tradeoff between different instrumental voices. I would liken it most to Impressionism, the 19th century classical movement that created dense moods through its use of extended tones and subtle chord changes. Shepherd has noted he’s influenced by Claude Debussy, and his piece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, or Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, is the closest reference point I have for Promises in its use of lyrical instrumental voices, motifs, stillness, and big, emotional crescendos. To be fair, Debussy didn’t feel like the impressionist label fit his compositions, and even though the ambient label doesn’t really fit this album to me, maybe it has to for this piece to fit in with how we engage with music today. The point I’m trying to get at is this: this doesn’t sound like your typical modern electronic music or avant-garde jazz.

“Movement One” opens with a seven-note figure on piano and other acoustic instruments that repeats throughout most of the piece with subtle shifts in chord tones. It creates an air of mystique and questioning that instantly pulls the listener in with its long, seven second stretches of room ambience between repetitions. After a minute and 20 seconds establishing the central motif, Pharoah Sanders announces his entrance with a loud, shocking cry of saxophone. His playing in the first movement reminds me of the flute in Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, that playfully uses rhythm and empathetic melodies to contrast the ambience of the other instruments. While the flute in Debussy’s piece evokes wide open spaces in nature and basking in its simple beauty, Sanders’ saxophone evokes a deep sense of longing and pain.

The motif never grows stale, as the textures surrounding it are constantly shifting and moving in different directions. Sam Shepherd layers atmospheric synthesizers, electric piano and arpeggiators upon the acoustic figure with a restraint that allows each to have their own shining moments and evoke their own distinct emotions. Aside from his dynamic saxophone playing throughout, Pharoah Sanders briefly provides wordless vocalizations in the same lineage as “The Creator Has a Master Plan” in the fourth movement. The London Symphony Orchestra summon stillness through glacial textures and deep, rich emotions through extended crescendos into bold, grand melodies, like on the climax and highlight of the piece, “Movement 6”. A funereal and mournful organ solo slowly replaces the motif in the eighth movement, and it’s the darkest moment of Promises. It feels like it’s over, until the strings softly re-enter a minute later, growing into a gorgeous epilogue that provides some light to a rather dark ending, before fading into silence once again on a dissonant final chord.

While all of the textures and melodies are phenomenally beautiful, Promises, when taken as a whole with the structure, the choice of instrumental tones, and cover art, has so much meaning that one can interpret if they feel inclined to. To me the cover, visual artist Julie Mehretu’s painting Congress, represents the economic development of land and human life into the all-consuming hellscape that is modern life. The music mirrors that compositionally, moving from humble but harsh beginnings to towering achievements that feel like progress to the noise and mourning of everyday life, with glimpses of hope and beauty to sustain oneself. It also feels like the progression of life, from birth to personal achievement to experiencing love to death and whatever you believe comes after, while the time in between those landmarks is mundane, silent, and still.

For me, the overarching theme and mood of this work is mourning. Even though it was recorded between 2019 and 2020, it’s hard for me to listen to it and not think of the over 575,000 dead from coronavirus in the United States alone and who are still dying across the globe. I mourn the hundreds of black men and women who die to systemic police violence every year. I mourn my naivety and the future I envisioned for myself before a year of constant mourning. As an 80-year-old black man who has lived to see the Civil Rights Movement come and go and many of his peer’s times coming early, I’m sure Pharoah Sanders mourns things both similar to and completely different than me, and it comes through in his playing. I also think of the global rise of fascism, especially in Sanders and Shepherd’s native homes of the United States and the United Kingdom respectively, and the mourning that will certainly come with it as it grows worse. The compositional brilliance of this piece gives it so much emotion without directly conveying to the listener what went into each note, allowing the listener to project whatever feelings they want onto the dynamics and structure. I also think about what promises the title refers to. Is it the promise that one day people will be freed from suffering? That one day we can live in racial harmony with no wars? That fascism could never happen here? That death will finally bring us the peace that we can never experience on earth? I’m not sure what promises they are, but given the mourning tone of the album, I can’t help but feel like they’ve been broken.

Promises is a sign of great things to come in the development of modern classical music. It’s able to engage with so many different musical traditions, yet sound like none of them individually. It’s able to resonate with the current moment, even though it takes influence from styles that feel ancient compared to what typically garners a large audience like this. It holds so much emotion and compositional variety for a genre that typically serves the purpose of audio wallpaper. It feels like a towering achievement in Floating Point’s career up to this point, and a late-career masterpiece for Pharoah Sanders. I think that this would make for an enthralling live performance, although I’m not sure how likely it’ll be to see Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra perform this album in full on the same stage. While I pray that a live recording can be made with video someday, I could see it being performed by local symphonies across the country, just so people could have the opportunity to experience a piece of this magnitude live. I would pay good money to see the Kansas City Symphony perform this album at the Kauffman Center with a local saxophonist and an electronic musician. I want to see Promises enter a canon like that someday, as a document of the constant stillness that comes with mourning throughout 2020 and today, with the glimmer of hope that we can keep some of the promises we make to ourselves and those around us.

Recommended If You Like: Ornette Coleman, Four Tet, Alice Coltrane, Leon Vynehall, Flying Lotus
Recommended Tracks: Movement 1, Movement 6, Movement 9
Do Not Play: None
Written by Deegan Poores on 05/03/2021