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

[Luaka Bop; 2021]

There’s about half a century age gap between the legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and British producer Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points, so a team up between the two seems, at first glance, unlikely. Shepherd is a longstanding fan of the luminary, having fused many of his countless mixes with jazz inflections – often selections of Sanders’ playing. But, an acolyte does not necessarily a worthy collaborator make – especially for something so involved as Promises, their new album with added strings from the London Symphony Orchestra.

What must have appealed to Sanders are the indefinable similarities that link these two cross-generational musicians. He must have recognised in Shepherd someone who shares his own boundless appreciation of music, his visual understanding of sound, and, perhaps most importantly, his patience when it comes to creation. Even when Shepherd is behind the decks as an in-demand peak hour DJ, playing 120BPM+ music, he clearly has an ear and eye that sees beyond the fast-paced beats and what he’s going to play next; he’s envisioning the ebb and flow of his set as a whole, sculpting an experience, and reacting to the audience as necessary – something that a seasoned improviser like Sanders understands implicitly. 

Add to this Shepherd’s willingness to fly out to California to meet Sanders, get to know him, and plot the outline of Promises, and there’s really no way that the jazz great could turn him down. Yes, this record was largely written and recorded pre-pandemic, which should be obvious in listening to it, because there’s no way that a work this subtle, with the two revolving around each other in minutely reactive arcs, could have been created remotely.

“Movement 1” – the first of nine movements that comprise Promises – seems to capture that meeting in real time. It begins with a seven-note refrain that repeats throughout almost the entirety of Promises’ 46 minutes. Its repetition is like a homing beacon sending out a welcome message to the furthest reaches of the universe, inviting like-minded individuals to come and connect. And it doesn’t take long for Sanders and his sax to appear, weaving his way between Shepherd’s repeated seven-note flutter, looking for a plane on which these two multi-dimensional beings can interact.

Using outer space as a setting might seem like a cliché given how many interstellar themed works Sanders has been involved with, especially as part of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, but there’s really no better way to envision the way he uses his instrument – imposing, but always gliding and graceful. Add to this Shepherd’s army of synths – here using Harpsichord, Celesta, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, and Oberheim Four, to name but a mere handful – and the LSO’s silvery strings, and there really is no other metaphor quite as apt as a celestial encounter.

Sanders’ sax dominates the early stages of Promises, almost as if Shepherd and the LSO are so fascinated and awed by his effortless power that they remain at the edges, not wanting to disrupt. It’s around “Movement 3”, when Sanders takes a breather, that Shepherd starts to express himself a bit more, with some descending tones like alien signals and bells sparkling as they orbit the piece. Clearly wanting to display his own prowess without disrupting the flow, he keeps his solo simple, darting through this combined atmosphere like some antigravitational fairy.

Sanders evidently likes what he sees, because he rejoins the party in “Movement 4” – although not with his sax, but with his voice, which babbles away in wordless reverie. It’s a moment that makes you sit up and pay attention as the entrancing spell of the previous instrumentation is broken by this organic sound of sheer human enjoyment. It’s like he’s using his own made-up language to tell Shepherd “I dig what you’re laying down.”

It’s also a signal for the two figureheads to start really expressing themselves in conjunction with each other. Anchored by the continued homing beacon signal, “Movement 5” finds Shepherd and Sanders both drawing curlicues of sound in the shared space; the bronze of the brass and the silver of the synth complementing each other breathtakingly, even as they both seem to be working on entirely different shapes. 

Not content to be mere background players, the strings start to make themselves truly known in “Movement 6”. They don’t enter with the gusto of Sanders or the swoop of Shepherd, but a gradual glide; first simply violins, then, almost imperceptibly, cello and viola, drawing a glistening ribbon around and through the piece – they’re practically a whole galaxy in themselves, such is the detail and exquisite level of the recording. All of a sudden we’re no longer in space jazz but something much closer to modern classical – an evolution that takes place simply but indescribably – while that homing beacon refrain reminds us we’re still in this same single unbroken piece. ‘Cinematic’ is a word overly used to describe strings this sweeping, but considering we were already floating in space before their arrival, it’s unavoidable that their addition evokes the grandiosity of an interstellar blockbuster.

Having taken time out to admire the strings, “Movement 7” finds both Shepherd and Sanders creeping back into the spotlight, once again feeling each other out. Sanders takes his sax on a weightless walk, his wisened lungs somehow making their decades’ worth of experience known in his rustic playing. Shepherd’s synths chirp and glisten around, forming a harmonic forcefield, and he gradually builds to, for lack of a better term, ‘bleeps and bloops’, but gorgeous ones, lopsidedly pirouetting on the edges while more wonky figures criss cross over them, drawing an abstract diagram of an imaginary cosmos. Sanders responds by blowing the hardest we hear him on the whole of Promises, and the intensity of the sound is overwhelming, but in a beautiful way, as if viewing the death of a star – in all its blinding brightness – from up close. 

“Movement 8” reverts to quiet once more, a few lamenting tones from Shepherd’s organ seeming to signal the gradual close of Promises. Sanders’ sax is present, but barely more than a whisper, as if he’s already drifting away, back to whatever corner of the multiverse he emerged from. “Movement 8” ends in true silence, but Promises is not done – quite.

“Movement 9”, at just two and a half minutes, puts a resplendent cap on proceedings, the LSO’s strings tying things off with forlorn grace and pomp. It’s like an echo of what’s come before, the tremors from the encounter between Sanders and Shepherd resonating out into the infinitude. It leaves us in no doubt that we have just witnessed a meeting of monolithic proportions.