Album review

Pharoah Sanders, Floating Points & the London Symphony Orchestra – ‘Promises’

Pharoah Sanders, Floating Points & the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

(Luaka Bop. Album Review by John Bungey)

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After more than a decade without a new recording and a good distance from the limelight, Pharoah Sanders must be a little taken aback at the excitement his latest album is generating. Promises is a 46-minute continuous piece that mixes jazz, electronica and classical influences. That might sound like an unwieldy mash-up but the DJ and composer Sam Shepherd – aka Floating Points – has created a remarkable album with him. Sanders’s trenchant tenor saxophone is the star in a mesmeric work that’s winning raves from reviewers who usually steer well clear of the J word.

The architecture seems simple: a hypnotic seven-note motif is repeated through almost the entire work, played on a subtly shifting combination of synths, piano, celeste and harpsichord. It becomes the lulling sound of waves on the beach. Shimmers of electronica weave around the motif drifting between foreground and background. The saxophone makes a gentle, soulful entrance, each note carefully placed. Later Sanders will take a more bluesy, strident tone but he’s a long way from the free-jazz firestorms of his Coltrane days. As is his wont, the 80-year-old veteran also hums and wordlessly sings in one episode.

The strings of the London Symphony Orchestra are first heard in long keening high notes. But by movement six (the work is subdivided into nine parts) they have moved centre stage. Shepherd, who studied classical composition, creates a proper orchestral climax full of drama and fire – the strings are far more than mere “sweeteners” as so often in crossover works.

But to over-analyse is maybe to miss the point. Promises can be absorbed as one long meditative splurge of sound – an emotional wave that bypasses the prefrontal cortex altogether. Put on the headphones though and you start to appreciate the intricate tonal and textural detail that apparently took five years to create. Sanders said he wanted to work with Shepherd after hearing Elaenia, the artist’s 2015 debut as Floating Points. Although one is master of the micro-circuit and the other has embraced jazz anarchy, both are interested in music’s power to heal.

The result is unlike anything else by Shepherd, or, come to that, by anyone much else. Saxophonist John Tchicai and the electronic duo Spring Heel Jack made John Tchicai with Strings in 2004 but that was a more challenging affair. There is a recording floating about on the internet of Terry Riley and trumpeter Don Cherry from 1975 that comes closer (I don’t think that Cologne concert has ever been officially released on record.) The Gandharva suite made in 1971 by Moog pioneers Beaver & Krause with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and others explores the same moods.

Some jazz fans may struggle with the complete absence of groove on Promises and the minimalist framework; free thinkers will want something riskier. But that’s not what this work is about as spiritual jazz meets something you could call spiritual electronica. It could even give crossover a good name.

LINK: Luaka Bop

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