Yeah, I know. Just about everyone has already written about this album. Plenty of reviews, lots of promotion, even the big national magazines and newspapers wrote about “Promises”. But I wanted to let this one sink in, and give it a while. Even before I had read about it and before I had seen the trailers and heard the excerpts I thought that this is not the kind of album that is properly acknowledged with a hastily written comment after a quick first impression. Not appropriate.
Some ten years ago, the first Floating Points 12″ entered my DJ bag. “Vacuum Boogie” stayed there for a pretty long time too, a killer track when the mood at the beach club was transitioning from hi how are you to man, this is a nice evening. “Nuit Sonores” was another one of those really nice pieces to play there, and I enjoyed building a nice and classy set around them.
I did understand that Sam Shepherd wanted to explore his abilities beyond dance categories – even if it meant that I would play his stuff less frequently and not necessarily at the beach. “Elaenia” would sometimes accompany me, but be played much more often when I was on the highway, helping me to actually enjoy a four hour drive to Munich. “Reflections” and “Crush” further transformed the project, and by then it was clearly living room listening material.
And now this. “Promises”. As much as this may be a spoiler, but at least for me, the transformation has gone from living room listening to music for meditative moments. I almost hesitate to write this – not all too long ago, this label would probably have rung a big old New Age Music alarm bell. But yes, I think it really is a kind of music that will let you spend some time on mindfulness and inspiration.
Of course it is, and it is supposed to if you team up with Pharoah Sanders, an icon of Spiritual Jazz. The format chosen is ideal as well – one 47 minute piece consisting of nine movements connected by one simple theme consisting of seven notes, repeated like a mantra, acting as the only obvious form of structure. Everything else happens more than it is placed within this structure.
What happens is Sanders, obviously. Shepherd may be the composer of this piece, but instead of entering the stage he provides it. When Sanders joins in after about one and a half minute of the first movement the full magic of this combination becomes clear – Sanders almost tentatively starts into his first solo, as if gently entering the sphere that is created by Shepherd, and then going for a ride that brushes the melancholic, serene and hopeful, getting more and more assertive and exploratory, and while his play is free and improvisational it never loses touch with the space created.
During the fourth movement, Sanders puts his saxophone down to continue his improvisations with his voice, something that is so not concrete, so not scat or chant or anything, so seemingly amateurish that it did cause a few negative comments – to me, this is more an expression of human nature, an impulse, nothing that is planned at all, and I felt that looking down on these vocalizations is about as inappropriate as it would be if you scoffed at Keith Jarrett for his vocal expressions during his solo concerts.
Right after this, Sanders picks his saxophone up again and does the exact contrary of what he did vocally – his second solo is masterful, clear, strong and impactful – and this impact is clearly partly embellished by the hushed naïveté of that vocal passage.
Shepherd gets to shape this space during several of the movements, and when he adds some keyboard play here and there it’s as if we get echoes from his Mojave Desert project. Still, this is limited to not even two movements, and just when you think that he might be giving this some more room the wonderful strings of the London Symphony Orchestra enter the stage – and they do it in an epic and even cinematic fashion. This is where Shepherd’s composition does an especially astounding trick as the big strings all but breathe in Shepherd’s recurring theme and even use it to highlight specific passages and moments. It truly is a great moment when the Orchestra and Shepherd reach a dramatic climax towards the end of the sixth movement, only to dissolve in the next moment.
The silence created is populated by Sanders and his saxophone again, playing softly with a lot of air, only the slightest pressure and a lot of sensitivity – this is when we all can be ever so grateful that this master is still among us and able to turn the deep and full humanity of eighty years on this planet into something we can hear, feel and enjoy.
In another passage Sanders and Shepherd intensify things one more time, all cosmic and free, followed by solo organ play by Shepherd that seems to hint at one of Sanders’ favorite companions for several years, Alice Coltrane. Just like during the opening movements we can witness the sound of making music when we hear the pedals being operated. Towards the final moments of the piece we reach a stage of peace and hope – and promises of them – with almost church-like organ play that will undoubtedly leave you touched and blessed.
The ninth movement is sort of an epilogue, bringing the strings back for two and a half minutes, like an afterthought, a slightly cautious one as if to remind us that the peace and hope we have been given are all too fragile.
This is an album that is wonderfully removed from everything that is setting the rules for formats of music in our time. First of all, it is an album. Not a collection of titles. It’s got a concept, even if it isn’t the kind of concept that would be written all over the work. And it’s one continuous piece, something that would be indigestible for lots of people that start looking for the skip button after a minute or two.
I did ask myself whether I should get this on vinyl – for obvious reasons “Promises” needs to be divided into two parts for this purpose, 1 to 5 and 6 to 9. But taking a break between five and six is not such a terrible interruption – actually it’s interesting to experience it this way as the strings don’t join in before you have reached the B side.
Plus – vinyl buyers get a free download. I always appreciate that a lot. One day I will be able to travel again, and when I sit on a plane I love to just check out of my surroundings with noise canceling pods and music that enables me to turn the flight into a meditative episode. This will work wonderfully.
When the last notes of this album have been played, there is this rare sense of silence and maybe even thankfulness. In its finest moments, music has the ability to let me be happy to be alive, and – as corny as this may sound – that despite all the horrible things humans are doing to the planet and to each other, there is plenty of greatness in all of us. Maybe that’s the promise here. The promise that lies in the essence of humanity.
Release for review:
FLOATING POINTS, PHAROAH SANDERS & THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA – PROMISES – LUAKA BOP –
6 80899 0097-1-3