Live reviews

Floating Points with Shabaka Hutchings – ‘Promises’ at Hollywood Bowl

Floating Points with Shabaka Hutchings – “Promises”
(Hollywood Bowl. 20 September 2023. Live review by Dick Hovenga(*))

Photo by Dick Hovenga of the concert poster by Julie Mehretu

There are concerts that you will never forget, and for as long as you live. You are always going to keep the memory close. For me, one of these came last Wednesday night 20 September. It was the one-off live version of Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders’ album “Promises” at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. “Promises”(Luaka Bop) was the album which had taken the top spot in Written in Music’s best-of list for 2021, and done so with ease.

The announcement came in February that “Promises”, the masterpiece by the UK’s Floating Points and by American saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, would be performed live, and just once. It was without doubt one of this year’s most surprising concert announcements, not least because Pharoah Sanders the spiritual jazz legend had passed away on 24 September last year.

But then it turned out that Pharoah Sanders and UK saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings had been in touch for some time, and had even become good friends. Sanders saw in Shabaka the keeper of the flame for the spiritual jazz he loved so much. At the same time he would an ideal ‘replacement’ for a one-off performance of the album Promises. So ‘Promises live’ became Floating Points with Shabaka Hutchings.

Of course, on hearing that the one-off concert would take place in Los Angeles, doubts started to hit home: spending all that money to go all the way to Los Angeles for one concert? Conclusion: life is short, way too short, just get on with it: book the ticket and don’t think too much about it (ahem…).

And that was how it happened that on Wednesday night, 20 September, we witnessed that one-off performance of “Promises” in the magnificent outdoor stage setting of the Hollywood Bowl, full to its 17,500 capacity.

Opening the concert, and very aptly, was the Sun Ra Arkestra, a jazz collective that fits perfectly into any conceivable concert format where adventurous and mind-blowing music is possible. Space is the Place was again the theme (like every Sun Ra concert of recent decades) and the music was wonderfully intoxicating.

The big band, 13 musicians in total, always plays freely, sometimes – it seems – right through and across each other, then super-tight, but always completely individualistic. It is also always a pleasure to see them, because each concert is unpredictable and there are always surprising elements – on this occasion musicians doing somersaults and cartwheels on stage. It was a very successful opening.

Music is and always will be a wonderful experience, but one of its mysteries is that you normally don’t normally know when the emotions are going to kick in. But what I knew beforehand was that the first notes of “Promises” would hit me hard. Those first harpsichord/organ tones, which are going to keep coming back throughout the entire piece, are going to resonate majestically in the head…which they duly did. The opening came in rock hard. No doubt partly because of the awareness of just being there in this astonishing environment, and also because the sound of the ‘hall’ is so fantastically tuned.

“Promises”, then, is a fascinatingly set-up piece of music, and that is not only because of Sanders’ amazing playing, but also because of the genius way electronica, jazz and classical are combined into something which is musically completely new. Sam Shepard had already been labelled a great talent with his first Floating Points records; with “Promises” he proved to be a musical genius.

The first thing that immediately stands out at the live show is how good Shabaka sounds. And what feeling he puts into his playing and how individual he sounds, while at the same time following on from Sanders’s playing. Truly every note he blows is emotionally charged and enriches the music. So what might have seemed a risky venture beforehand, following in the footsteps of Pharoah Sanders, turns out exceptionally well.

The band on stage is so impressive. Alongside Shepard is keyboardist John Escreet, Kieran Hebden from Four Tets, Dan Snaith (Caribou) and Kara-Lis Coverdale, and what a string orchestra they have behind them on stage as well. These are not the London players from the album but musicians from Los Angeles, conducted by the celebrated Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.

The way they play “Promises” take it to imposingly new heights. What a comprehensive and impressive piece of music Shepard has written and what – in retrospect even more so – fantastic spotlight je gave Pharoah Sanders. Shabaka, humble, shares in the spirit of Pharoah with the very best playing I’ve heard from him so far (and I’ve seen him a lot over the past few years!).

Before we realise it, as if in a dream, the extended composition sweeps over us with all its imposing minimalist interludes. As imposing as it is impressive, as movingly beautiful as it is adventurous. After all the times I have already listened to “Promises” with breathless excitement and gone on discovering new depths in it again and again, I do so again tonight.

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With 17,500 very attentive music lovers, always with exactly the right encouragement at the right time, “Promises” fell fantastically into place live in this fascinating outdoor venue. It was enchanting to hear Promises come fully to life in a ‘new’ version on this balmy late-summer evening. As special as the concert is and was, getting up the next day and reliving thoughts of this legendary evening is just as special. These are them, the concerts you dream about for months, and then they bring even more than you had already hoped for. A glorious concert.

Shabaka Hutchings & Floating Points played at Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on 20 September 2023.

(*) This is LJN’s English-language version of the review published in Dutch at Written in MusicLINK

LINK: LJN’s review by John Bungey

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