Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / The London Symphony Orchestra
2021 • ELECTRONIC/JAZZ • LUAKA BOP
BEST NEW MUSIC
The collaborative album by Shepherd, Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra is a profound experience and emerges as an unexpected partnership.
In 2015, legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders heard the first work of Sam Shepherd, producer and DJ under the name of Floating Points. Quickly, at the age of 75, he got impressed by Elaenia, the debut of Shepherd, who was in his mid-35s at that time. After a while, the two became friends and, over lunch, decided to work together on a collaborative album. So, Shepherd started composing music and called the London Symphony Orchestra to play the string arrangements he had written, while he would be in charge of pianos, synthesizers, and others, and Sanders would be left with what he knew how to do best. The result of this combination that is more than improbable and immutable is Promises, an excellent instrumental album that takes the experience of listening to music to a higher level.
Promises is 46 minutes long and is slipped between nine tracks, beginning with the name “Movement.” All of these are interconnected by a string arrangement that is played throughout the record, working as a kind of necessary element to strengthen and materialize the whole dreamy space that the two artists, together with the orchestra, aimed at. Taking advantage of the potential of great violins and cellos, morbidity of grand pianos and oniric synthesizers, Promises delivers something much more than just a set of instrumental tracks, but rather a complex and complete experience that is capable of taking you to another universe, a totally new one that seems to be born of the inevitable attraction and fusion of these artists. It is certainly not an accessible album for everyone, but without a doubt, it takes the experience of listening and enjoying music to a new level.
Promises is a complicated project. This is not due to its instrumental complexity or the like, but because of the lack of words that the project leaves you. Simultaneously, it sounds morbid, dense, heavy, and sad, it sounds liberating and defiant. It causes feelings that are difficult to describe but that are easy to feel. Obviously, this makes sense since this is an album that clearly focuses its total efforts on generating an increasingly inexplicable experience. But it’s funny and interesting that even the silence, which is not exactly the absence of sound but rather when everything is softer and seems to represent the emptiness of the soul, sounds indefinable. Perhaps, after all, Promises is much more for the faithful representation of an abstract state of mind than for an impressive sound source — but it manages to be both.
In this way, the best of the album are the moments when the instrumental, which does not work separately between the tracks, but rather in an omnipresent way throughout the album, not only reaches these characteristics but turns the listener’s head inside out. In “Movement 4,” Sanders drops the saxophone for a while to create vocals, the only ones on the entire record. He hums lost syllables and meaningless onomatopoeia, generating something strange but equally intriguing. Meanwhile, in the detailed and well-finished “Movement 7,” we witness Shepherd synthesizers dropping sparkling and spatial notes and tones. This is the most vivid, lucid, and fanciful moment in the entire album. This is where the listener is taken totally into this kind of new universe different from ours. The golden moment is when these synthesizers, next to the saxophone, short-circuit and explode into something that would visually be particles of flourishing lights. But the best of all ends up being “Movement 6,” the most intense, heavy, and dramatic of the entire album. With the sore saxophone’s help, elegant and morbid strings, and heavy synthetics, the track creates a feeling of mourning and death. The most powerful moment of the album is found in it, even when, in the middle, all the strings reach a glorious, grand, and unreachable point. It’s undeniably beautiful.
But for all that, “Movement 1,” with its eccentric and precise introduction, had to take the lead. The album starts with these strings, which look more like a dreamy harp, responsible for creating Promises’ whole atmosphere. “Movement 2,” in turn, has the role of intensifying everything that had been established in the opener, making everything more intense, sharp, and grand through the help of synthetics and refinements in post-production. At times, the saxophone becomes so powerful that it seems to become white noise. “Movement 3,” finally, uses samples and synthetic psychedelic notes to just sow that fantastical universe that would be reached later on.
But despite all these qualities, Promises has its shortcomings, which are not necessarily the fault of someone or something but that it comes from the very existence of a project like this. While “Movement 5,” despite its unusual solo perfected by Sanders and synthesizers that give a well-done texture, it ends up being relatively monotone and even seems to last longer than it should, “Movement 8,” despite its seven minutes in length, there’s not a lot of anything special besides everything we’ve seen before on the record. Lastly, the last track, “Movement 9,” is the shortest on the record and, despite giving an air of finalization to the record and having a certain elegance, it ends up being a bit forgettable too. Regardless of these flaws, what they created here was extraordinary.