- An epic, intergenerational meeting results in one of the greatest modern jazz albums.
- Floating Points: Pharoah...
Pharoah Sanders: Huh?
Floating Points: Were you asleep? I'm sorry...
Pharoah Sanders: No no... I was listening... and dreaming... and listening to music in my head...
Floating Points: Oh wow. Sorry.
Pharoah Sanders: Many times, people think I might be asleep... but in fact, I am just listening to music in my head. I'm always listening... to the sounds around me... and playing, in my mind... and sometimes I dream.
Floating Points: What were you dreaming about?
Pharoah Sanders: I'm on a ship. In the ocean. Bears coming around smoking cigars. The bears are singing, 'We have the music. We have what you're looking for.'
This conversation between Pharoah Sanders and Sam Shepherd, the DJ and accomplished musician known as Floating Points, gives us a glimpse into the five-year process that has culminated in Promises. Initiated by David Byrne's label Luaka Bop after Sanders heard Shepherd's work, a team-up like this comes with sky-high expectations. Promises is Shepherd's third studio album after the highly-acclaimed LPs Elaenia and Crush, and Sanders' first new recordings in over a decade. There were no singles put forward from the album, just some video previews and a smattering of press info. The time and patience put into the project is audible across its nine movements.
Sanders is one of America's greatest living artists, and one of the most influential jazz saxophonists of all time. He began playing in segregated Little Rock, Arkansas (where the historical Little Rock Nine Crisis took place) and has six decades of professional musicianship under his belt. He played under Sun Ra, who bestowed the name Pharoah upon him, and crucially, with John Coltrane. The period with Coltrane became the foundation of free jazz and the well-known "sheets of sound" method.
"Listening to Pharoah play on this piece, it was like the instrument was an extension of his being, like it was a megaphone for his soul," is how Shepherd describes his playing on Promises. This is a man who has nothing to prove, and is grounded in himself and his music. For him to not only appreciate but participate in a collaborative effort with any modern artist is not only an honor but a privilege.
Then there is Sam Shepherd, the English-born globe trotting DJ and neuroscience PhD holder. Through his association with defunct club Plastic People and his role in starting the Eglo label, he's shown a deep appreciation for music influenced by the African diaspora. This comes from a willingness to truly interact and learn from the community he admires without the fetishization so common in many European admirers.
Shepherd spent time in the US as a young adult, when he got a firsthand education on records, DJing at Mr. Peabody Records, the now-shuttered Chicago record store run by Mark Grusane and Mike Cole. Through his DJ sets as Floating Points he demonstrates a willingness to push boundaries. In fact, he once played Pharoah Sanders' "Harvest Time" in its entirety, at Berghain, as his opening record. The admiration is mutual. "I think Sam is a great musician, and one of these geniuses just walking around on this earth," Sanders says. "I love the way he plays, and I love the way he writes."
Although the notes list separate pieces, Promises is meant to be listened to in one sitting. Clocking in at 46 minutes, it touches on various aspects of classical composition and electronic music but is, in essence, a modern jazz record. Shepherd not only plays his various keyboards, but wrote all the music and mixed the record himself. The meticulous modern production techniques merge all these strains together for a near-perfect balance. Never does it seem like one genre or instrument is at the forefront—space and timing are given ample priority at every moment. It would be easy to just have Sanders blow constantly, but his playing is never given extreme prominence. When he does play, it's the stuff of magic. Years of perfecting his craft can be heard in every well-chosen note.
The string arrangements are performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Shepherd explains how this addition was a game changer: "The sound of that orchestra playing with so much space between them felt like this audible manifestation of the times we were living through," he says. "It was wide and distant and loose, and as soon as I heard them playing, it was like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place."
Recorded during the pandemic using a socially distanced recording process, 100 different microphones were used in the process. It's a poignant memento of a time of great uncertainty and fear. As the world attempts to reclaim some sense of "normalcy" and people begin to slide back into the hyper-paced lifestyle of the modern world, Promises is a reminder of the benefits of immersive listening. It gives the modern music fan a taste of what's lost in the endless pursuit of constant gratification.
One cannot help but make comparisons to the jazz recordings of the analog years. Active listeners will hear the movement of fingers across instruments, Sanders' breath as he blows into his reed, shuffling musicians in their seats. This adds a palpable, organic layer to the listening experience.
This human aspect behind the instruments is sometimes lost on a large part of the current music listening population. Promises is not for the club; it's not party music; it isn't overly contrived intellectual dribble. What is on display here is the potential of unbound artistic striving. I dare say this may not only be Shepherd's magnum opus, but one of Sanders' greatest works as well.
01. Movement 1
02. Movement 2
03. Movement 3
04. Movement 4
05. Movement 5
06. Movement 6
07. Movement 7
08. Movement 8
09. Movement 9