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Album Review: Promises
Pharoah Sanders
Cover image of the album Promises by Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
2021 / Luaka Bop Records
46 minutes
Review by Steve Yip
When the great tenor saxophonist and spiritual jazz giant Pharoah Sanders died on September 24, 2022, that jolt forced a discovery that he had collaborated in Promises, a trilateral endeavor accomplished with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. I hadn’t been aware of this recording until Sanders’ demise. I immediately purchased this latest rendering the day after.

Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that Promises is a beautiful and enjoyable piece of music that is truly a fusion. The initial, quick listening in September 2022 rendered the following from my MainlyPiano.com tribute (September 29) to Sanders’ legacy: “His latest 2021 release Promises (Luaka Bop Records) is fine quality easy-listening mastered by electronic music producer Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd) with the London Symphony Orchestra coloring the backdrop while Sanders gently solos and vocalizes.” My point then about Promises being a “fine quality easy-listening,” probably provided a gentle but unfair dismissiveness and did not do the recording any justice or appreciation.

Pharoah Sanders’ oeuvre has included not just recordings and work under his own leadership but also in appearances with other artists, such as Alice Coltrane. It took me over a year to really give this recording its just attention, I reviewed other reviews, especially several on YouTube and a couple of others in-print.

Now -- not being literate in music terminology or in music theories -- in all nine movements (or sections) there is a recurrent underlying thematic chord that may sound like a harp but is more of an electronically generated musical feature that travels throughout this work. And while Pharoah Sanders figures significantly in this work, overall it is a composition composed, infused and directed by Floating Points, which is the performance name for Sam Shepherd.

Sam Shepherd is a British electronic music producer, DJ, and musician. He’s another one of those musicians like the jazz experimental pianist Vijay Iyer holding PhD’s. The story is that Promises is a result of a five-year collaboration and that Sanders, who had followed Floating Points’ work, approached and proposed to Shepherd to partner up. Promises is the product of that collaboration. Floating Points is at the wheel throughout Promises which was released on March 26, 2021. He composed the music and played numerous electronic and non-electronic instruments It was the first major new album associated with Pharoah Sanders in nearly two decades, where his deep, mellow sonics played more or less supportive solos and with some wordless vocalizations in the movements.

Each movement blends and holds different features that are held together by Floating Points. The first movement also embodies some strange background sounds which may or may not have been planned, but they add a certain element to the music. Pay attention to the 6th movement as it transitions into the 7th. By the 8th and 9th movements, Sanders’ saxophonics have faded as the fusion of orchestral strings and electronic sonics introduces a bluesy organ and slides with a continuum of sounds like from a sci-fi scene. The 9th is the outro and it comes in slowly droning with strings with some flashes of simmering light. There are instances where the mood takes on a dramatic tone like you might find in movies when things get serious or sad.

Yes, Promises can serve as easy listening or provide the ambient atmospherics you may need to concentrate on something... writing, reading or whatever. You can don a nice set of headphones and lay back on the couch knowing that you will enjoy Pharoah’s reassuring saxophone. Be warned that you won’t entirely escape his more memorable and unpredictable saxophonic blasts punctuating the senses that inform many of his recordings. Check for some familiar overblowing in the 7th movement.

Conceptually, I’m not sure what the title Promises signifies, but clearly, Floating Points has achieve a promise to amaze. Check it out.

December 18, 2023
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