The Student Playlist

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REVIEW: Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – ‘Promises’ (Luaka Bop)


In a sentence:

A yearning, spiritual jazz masterpiece augmented by minimalist electronica and symphonic elements, Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders’ ‘Promises’ is a seamless fusion of genres.

Five years in the making by way of remote collaboration and painstaking tweaking and editing, Promises is an absolutely fascinating proposition. Sam Shepherd, an electronic music maverick untethered to any one way of working in ten years of recording as Floating Points, works with octogenarian jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and The London Symphony Orchestra to produce a nine-movement suite of spiritual, meditative instrumental music spanning the gaps between spiritual jazz, cosmic psychedelia and symphonic gravitas. The results are toweringly beautiful, from beginning to end.

There aren’t that many antecedents for an album like Promises. Jamie xx’s graceful re-tooling of Gil Scott-Heron’s dignified swansong I’m New Here comes to mind, as do much older spiritual jazz albums by Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Rarely does collaborative artistry work across such generational divides – Sanders is old enough to be Shepherd’s grandfather. But right from the start, Promises locates a simpatico between two very different artists, and then achieves the even harder task of resolving the resulting music with the seemingly incompatible needs of a large orchestra.

Throughout the entire suite, there’s a recurring seven-note figure that underpins the music as it evolves, builds and recedes. A twinkling jingle of glissando chimes, it speaks of enlightenment and revelation, and it’s this philosophy that forms the crux of Promises. Sanders’ mournful saxophone wanders in and out of the ambient mix, with the veteran exploring the lesser-known of his two primary methods of performing – spiritual, philosophical inquisition, rather than the blistering, free-jazz skronking for which he’s most renowned. After the tone is established in the opening ten minutes or so, ‘Movement 4’ opens with Sanders singing wordlessly for the briefest of moments before resuming on the sax, this time freestyling more prominently in the mix. It’s an impossibly moving moment, and one that defines the character of the record.

At around the halfway point, the orchestral elements strike up, pushing Promises into even more cinematic territory. ‘Movement 6’, in particular, feels widescreen and epic where the album had hitherto been quite an inner journey, Shepherd and the orchestra generating a sublime state somewhere between tension and serenity. What’s striking is that these symphonic elements are incorporated so seamlessly, never seeming extraneous or gratuitous as they so easily could have. The seventh and eighth movements retract into spiritual, quiet territory, while the ninth segment acts as a kind of coda, the twinkling leitmotif dropping away to bathe the listener in fantastical electronics.

Although it perhaps looks unworkably ambitious on paper, Promises is near-flawless in practice. Shepherd, drawing on the electronic jazz of his 2015 Floating Points album Elaenia rather than the more intensely produced Crush, acts as a perfect creative foil for Pharoah Sanders, who gives one of the most soulful performances of his labyrinthine, stellar career. The orchestral elements underline and accentuate the atmosphere, but never steal focus from the performances. A beguiling and becalming listening experience. (9/10) (Ed Biggs)

Listen to Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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