Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders' 'Promises' Is More Mind Meld Than Collaboration
Published Mar 23, 2021As a backing musician during John Coltrane's cosmic phase, throughout sessions with Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra, and spanning his 57 years as a fearless bandleader, Pharoah Sanders remains the last living arbiter and living legend in what's been known as "spiritual jazz." But on Promises, the first LP to don his name since 2003's The Creator Has a Master Plan, Sanders positions himself not as the focal point but as one of many elements that define this sweepingly stunning classical, jazz and electronic piece. Across the nine movements that make up the 46-minute LP, Sam Shepherd (a.k.a. Floating Points) never forces things into the nostalgic free jazz era that helped define his recording partner. He rather forms absorbing soundscapes to allow the duo to move into sounds, modes and moods completely outside of their respective comfort zones.
Although Shepherd has helmed his own 16-piece Floating Points Ensemble, the inclusion of the string section of the renowned London Symphony Orchestra makes this project even more ambitious and grandiose. But the British musician — playing a multitude of keys; piano, synth, organ, harpsichord — manages to keep everything sounding grounded and singular. Sanders breathes and sighs through his saxophone, allowing only elected notes to permeate this occasionally noisy, occasionally hushed set. Instead of elastic basslines and polyrhythmic drums that defined mid-'60s free jazz, Promises instead opens with an crystalline repeating synth sample as Sanders messes with the timing and phrasing of his sax melody before he skillfully moves into a musical conversation with this otherwise staid ambient pulse. As Shepherd elevates the atmospherics, Sanders begins to lock into a wriggling rhythm before unleashing his most rootless animated soloing.
As the album shifts into an almost noiseless decrescendo, a gloomy violin (perhaps the most straight-forward musical movement across the entire LP) leads the string section into sweeping Howard Shore soundtrack territory before bulging into musical apex that is so affecting as to sound almost menacing. While Sanders generally lays low throughout the middle of the recording, Shepherd melds his electronics into the physically distanced and sonically capacious orchestra. But as the musicians begin to ebb and flow toward the ninth and final movement, it's clear that Pharoah Sanders and Floating Points are so metaphysically in tune with their latest creation that their respective musical personalities almost disappear into the waves of sound, making Promises a recording that is more of a transcending mind meld than it is a collaboration. (Luaka Bop)