by Levi Dayan
[originally posted April 2021]
Some time ago I came across a copy of Elaenia, the debut album by Floating Points, at a record store, possibly Joint Custody, in Washington, DC. Having heard the album before, what caught my eye was a blue sticker on the wrapping reading a quote from the jazz giant Pharoah Sanders: “Very, very creative - This sounds good - a really clean sound. I’d like to meet him some day”. My immediate reaction was to think that Floating Points—real name Sam Shepherd—must have been thrilled beyond belief to read that quote. Little did I know that it was a signal of even greater things to come.
Promises, a collaboration between Shepherd, Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra, has been five years in the making. Its genesis came from Sanders listening to Elaenia in a car when it first came out in 2015, and making those remarks to a representative from Shepherd’s record label Luaka Bop. The two had been in touch afterwards, but it took years for this album to come together. It paid off. Every note of this album, consisting of one 50-minute piece split into nine movements, feels like the fullest representation of itself. The album sounds like it was put together with the utmost care, as if the musicians knew the great emotional weight this album carries.
In reviews of the album, much attention is given to the fact that this is Sanders’s first new album in nearly 20 years. At 80 years old, the man rarely gives interviews, but in one he did with the New Yorker last year, he said he doesn’t listen to many records. Perhaps this sense of relative solitude that seems to have defined his late-career era makes sense. Sanders got his start at age 25 with John Coltrane, pushing the saxophone to explosive, sometimes violent new heights, and it’s been said that during their brief period together late in Coltrane’s life, the two didn’t speak to each other often, with music serving as their communication. This isn’t to say that Sanders is any kind of recluse. He still played jazz clubs prior to COVID, and just last year he performed a concert for his 80th birthday at Zebulon in Los Angeles, live streamed as a much-needed transmission of solace as we were knee-deep in the pandemic. He’s also made appearances on records by luminaries such as Rob Mazurek’s Chicago/São Paulo Underground, Japan’s Sleep Walker Quartet, and Tisziji Muñoz.
That being said, when Sanders’s saxophone comes into the fold on the first movement of Promises, it’s impossible to hear anything other than something springing from the darkness, like a childhood memory sweeping you away. The saxophone pyrotechnics of his classic albums such as Karma and Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun) and his Coltrane sessions are nowhere to be found here. His playing here is far more meditative, perhaps more than it has ever been. In the face of the near-universal acclaim this album has received, some criticisms have emerged that the album is too “new-agey.” But it would be a mistake to characterize what Sanders is doing here as some form of celestial treacle. The sound of his playing resembles a wail, a cry from the universe, something deep, earthy, and swelling. It’s the sound of nature finding a way to express itself in a humanistic form, with all the overwhelming emotion that would imply. In other words, this is intense, visceral music, much like the aforementioned classic albums, but in a radically different form.
The entirety of Promises feels like an exercise in the power of both sound and silence, something that may seem new to Sanders, but is well-worn terrain for Floating Points. Shepherd’s music feels like an accumulation of several seemingly disparate points, from his time as a club DJ spinning disco and boogie cuts in the late aughts, his PhD in neuroscience (the name Floating Points is a reference to a computing arithmetic), and his influences, ranging from the aforementioned club music to Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Spirit of Eden / Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk. The man clearly has a knack for sound, but his music demonstrates that understanding of what sounds can move a crowd and strike an emotional resonance in listeners. More often than not, he shows these two dynamics to be intertwined, all rooted in deep listening and all rooted in the inexplicable cosmic power.
The 50-minute piece centers around one relatively minimalistic seven-note motif, played on a glimmering harpsichord, with each of the album’s three main players finding different ways to send it into the stratosphere. The album is defined by a richness in its tones, with Shepherd’s keyboard ranging from impressionistic brushes of piano, haunting, fluttering synths, and droning organ-like parts that call to mind Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly”. The strings of the orchestra rise and fall throughout the piece like a tide. The piece remains minimalistic in feel throughout, with the strings simmering up at certain moments, but when they reach a crescendo on movement six it’s impossible to not get swept away. But there’s one indisputable center in all of the inscrutable beauty of this piece, and it’s Sanders. His playing is indisputably the center of the piece, and even during long passages in which he is absent, his presence is still there. His playing breathes life into the piece, interjecting it with all of the wisdom and power of a master. Shepherd and the orchestra dance around him gracefully, but it’s the soul-piercing sounds he emotes from his saxophone that put the listener in a trance.
Pretty much every review I’ve read of Promises tries to describe the feelings it evokes in the listener. I think every person who listens to this album feels something they never felt before, and wants to capture what they think or how they feel in that moment. But it can’t be done. Just as one tries to describe how they feel when listening to it, it might be tempting to try to find something to compare it to. Doing so serves the same purpose of putting this work into perspective, giving the listener context, maybe helping them understand it. But that can’t be done either. The album is as open and free as the night sky, and the beauty of this album lies in its ability to evoke unknown emotions, feelings that can’t be put into words. That ability to evoke unheard emotions is, in my view, one of the defining traits of jazz, something that almost makes me agree with the saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
In this sense, Promises is perfectly in step with the evolution of the artform, and of Sanders in particular. So, in conclusion, Promises is a truly singular work, one that creates its own universe, projects itself into the cosmos, and then sits still while the whole thing plays out. But it also has a perfectly natural place in Sanders’ discography. When you start your career playing on Coltrane’s most intensely spiritual musical expressions, and when you make a masterpiece such as Karma on only your third album, there’s nothing to do but keep pushing forward. As for the listeners, all we can do is thank the lord Sanders is still here with us, sharing his musical universe.