April 24, 2021
PROMISES, a new collaboration between American free jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, British electronic musician and composer Floating Points (Sam Shepherd), and the London Symphony Orchestra, made me wish I was holding the sleeve of a 12" LP instead of squinting at a digital thumbnail. Even without the multiplex cover art by Julie Mehretu, there are only so many names you can squeeze onto one album cover before it threatens to buckle. I was not without trepidation when I first hit play: The easiest way to disappoint is to promise too much. Fortunately, Promises more than delivers.
Though it’s the tenor saxophonist’s first studio recording in over a decade, Promises isn’t a Pharoah Sanders album. It’s a long-form composition, written by Shepherd with Sanders. The piece is divided into nine movements, but it’s in every way a single, coherent work. Mehretu’s cover art—a kinetic vertical triptych somewhere between Kandinsky and Google Maps—effectively captures the music’s dynamic: The three key players occupy three parallel but distinct sonic planes, each equally important to the whole, none incidental or merely decorative. The music is a remarkable unity. Make sure you sit down and listen all the way through in one sitting.
Sanders is the star soloist, but not the main player. If anything, he’s underused; he steps back after the fifth movement and bows out entirely after a strong return in the seventh. The emotional and musical crescendo is given to the orchestra, with a soaring and glorious sweep of strings in the sixth movement; Sanders’s final appearance shortly after is a forceful but plaintive retort. In the final two movements, Shepherd’s electronics take a more central role along with a powerful, vibrant organ. The orchestral score is delicate but never fragile, the strings trembling and almost falling apart into microtones before pulling back into cinematic harmony.
Among the greatest and most pedigreed jazz musicians alive today, Sanders played with both Coltranes. The “sheets of sound” he developed working with John are absent here, but there are echoes of Alice, in Shepherd’s contributions especially: in the harp-like arpeggio motif at the heart of the album, in the impassioned organ that rises into the mix in the seventh movement, but most generally in the music’s calm, masterful unfolding, climbing from a trickle to a flood that feels inexorable but effortlessly controlled. Leaving generous swathes of unclaimed ground for his collaborators, Sanders’s playing is almost ghostly, its weight shaped by silence as much as by sound. There really isn’t a note out of place, on anybody’s part. If at some moments I wanted the sax to push harder, it wasn’t because the piece needed more, but only because I’m greedy, and because I know that ecstatic feeling from my previous journeys in Satchidananda.
Shepherd is credited with the album’s mix, which is impeccable. The production in general is a minor miracle of technology: The LSO’s players recorded their parts remotely during the pandemic, using over one hundred mics simultaneously. The clarity and balance are remarkable, even on mediocre headphones. The marvel of Promises is its expansive intimacy. The materiality of the thing is there to theorize, if you’re into that; it’s impossible to disregard the concrete reality of the recording process under 2020’s viral conditions, and easy to let the music’s quiet force symbolize that year’s desperate sense of isolation and longing. But it might not be necessary. The music is striking enough to speak for itself.
Promises: Through Congress will premiere on April 24 at The Broad museum in Los Angeles and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.