The meeting of electronics artist/DJ Sam Shepherdaka Floating Pointswith free-jazz icon Pharoah Sanders
and the London Symphony Orchestra is a welcome surprise. Sanders has seldom troubled his discographers since the dawn of the new millennium. A couple of archival radio recordings, Live at Antibes Jazz Festival Juan Les Pins July 21 1968
(Alternative Fox, 2019) and Live in Paris (1975)
(Transversales Disques, 2020), were potent reminders of his primacy in the crowded arena of the post-John Coltrane
legacy. Yet these, and a dozen or so sideman recordings in the same period, feel like small change from the man described by Ornette Coleman
in 2006 as probably the best tenor saxophonist in the world.
So, to return as co-leader in his eighty-first year is newsworthy in itself. But to do so with one of England's top dancefloor DJs was unexpected, to say the least. To some, their collaboration will no doubt seem like a gimmick, but the two musicians, born almost half a century apart, do share common ground.
Shepherd is an ardent admirer of Sanders and has been known to drop the twenty-minute track "Harvest Time"from Sander's album Pharoah
(India Navigation, 1977)on clubbers. That song, with its hypnotic ostinatos, trance-like drones and mellifluous, meditative air, seems, in retrospect, like a bridge to Promises
, which shares many of that album's essential qualities. And like Sanders, Shepherd is not averse to improvising on stage for half-hour stretches.
Shepherd's previous two albums, Elaenia
(Luaka Bop, 2015) and Crush
(Ninja Tune, 2019) were multi-layered forays in graceful electronica that drew subtly from classical, minimalism and indie pop; a world away from Sander's own stomping grounds maybe, but where the two musicians overlap is in the emotional depth of their music, whether dreamy and meditative or soaring and ecstatic. This emotional engagement lies at the heart of Promises.
The forty-six-minute suite, divided into nine movements, begins with a twinkling seven-note keyboard motif that repeats every few seconds, with slight variations in textures, for the duration. This motif, delicately layered on piano, Fender Rhodes, harpsichord and celeste, is to Promises
what Jimmy Garrison
's bass ostinato is to Coltrane's A Love Supreme
(Impulse! 1965), and instils a gloriously peaceful ambiance. Sanders, on tenor saxophone, enters a minute or so in, purring tenderly. His slightly gruff edged, yearning tone is both brittle and plaintivea hushed gospel blues.
The strings of the London Symphony Orchestra arrive like a faint breeze midway through the first movement, their gently undulating drone drifting in and out of focus. Strings, saxophone and retro synthesizer soundscaping merge in the second movement. The third movement is a spacey, one-man keys fest, with Shepherd embarking on a shimmering synthesizer improvisation against a backdrop of organ sustain and fleeting sci-fi effects that, taken together, are a little reminiscent of the blissed-out psychedelia of Steve Hillage
's Rainbow Dome Musick
(Virgin Records, 1979).
Sander's gentle babbling and wordless song open the fourth movement in curiously childlike style. His tenor playing, over organ drone and deft Fender Rhodes accompaniment, is more assertive here, his momentum carrying on into the fifth movement where the strength in hisstill mellifluousprobing, is mirrored by swelling drones. By the end of the fifth movement silence almost drops its veil, but for the perennial seven-note motif whose spell remains unbroken. The sixth movement commences with the plaintive legato phrasing of a single violina beautifully melancholy beacon all too soon enveloped by the rising strings of the LSO. The stringsbold, lush and deeply lyricalcome into their own here, growing in magnitude and intensity before receding once more.
The episodic seventh movement covers diverse terrain. From the intimacy of the suite's defining motif in isolation, followed by Sander's ever-so-tender ruminations, sci-fi effects gradually impose themselves; Shepherd's interlocking motifs on various keyboards resonate like interstellar church bells to create a powerful, almost overwhelming backdrop to Sander's braying re-entry. The saxophonist's brief lick of flame recedes to be replaced by a warm glow. The eighth movement, minimalist and serene to begin with, morphs into an organ-led section of brooding solemnity, the final minute perhaps the only time when the repeating seven-note motif is silenced. Silence, in fact, is now total.
The silence, a pregnant one if ever there was, lasts almost a minute before the LSO reappears in the brief yet tense final movement. This strange sonic void, coupled with the tension that followsand only partially resolved by the fade outmakes for an unsettling yet gripping finale that is bound to divide opinion.
Five years in the making, Promises
is a hauntingly beautiful work. Part-meditative spiritualism, part-avant-garde experimentalism, Shepherd's mesmerizing, and strangely moving suite, is a balm for our troubled times. It has also inspired some of the most affecting playing of Sander's entire career. A masterpiece? Time will have the final say there, but it is pretty damned close.
Movement 1; Movement 2; Movement 3; Movement 4; Movement 5; Movement 6; Movement 7; Movement 8;
Sam Shepherd: piano; harpsichord; celesta; Fender Rhodes; Hammond B3; Oberheim 4 voice; OB-Xa; Solina
String Ensemble; Therevox ET-4.3; EMS Synthi; ARP 2600; Buchla 200e.
Pharoah Sanders: voice (Movement 4); The strings of the London Symphony Orchestra.