LABEL: LUAKA BOP
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: A 21st CENTURY ELECTRONIC SYMPHONIC IMPROVISED TONE POEM MASTERPIECE
Promises, the new electronic symphonic tone poem wrought from collaboration between Sam Shepherd, working as Floating Points, and Pharoah Sanders, with a weighty contribution from the string section of the London Symphony Orchestra, is genius.
It is operating above a plane of conversations about what might be the defining album of the 2021. Promises is an instant cultural landmark; an authoritative twenty-first century artwork that will be marvelled at and continually repackaged for generations. It is an album that you can speak of in the same breath as Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis and not be over-reaching. It is an artwork that merits speculation of how maybe it would be the kind of thing Sibelius could achieve had he been born 100 years later. It is the kind of album that you play with caution in case the day surrounding it is too ordinary. It is that good. It is absolutely that good.
Promises begins with a simple, repetitive seven note motif played by Shepherd. This refrain weaves through nine continuous shifting movements; some where he is playing solo with a variety of keyboard instruments and synthesizers, others in conversation with the saxophone and vocals of Pharoah Sanders. The strings of the LSO swoon through the door at Movement 6, recapitulating, elevating and emotionally charging the established themes.
It feels that what is happening here is a confluence.
In nature, a confluence is where two or more rivers meet to make a mightier, united body of water. Although musicians from different disciplines and traditions have been gathered together, Promises is the opposite of a gimmick record. This is light years from disco Beethoven, ‘look, that orchestra has a DJ’, or pops Ibiza nostalgia. The playing on Promises is elemental. Shepherd leads by example and empowers each contributor to draw deeply from the streams of their respective influences and instincts. There is a reverence for currents of genre and ambience as they flow through constantly evolving scenery, dancing with wildlife of improvisation and accident. As Shepherd, Sanders and the LSO entwine, they create a more powerful river, greater than its tributaries, rushing to the sea and the ether beyond.
The presence of Pharoah Sanders, playing on his first album in a decade, is always felt by the listener. With his lifetime of experience, he knows how to step in with all he is without taking over. The opposite of a wild jazz jam; his playing is intimate, focussed and deeply purposeful. Every note counts. He brings a deep and wide humanity to the project. There is a charming moment in Movement 4 where he suggests the next line, the next direction through a bubbling type of scat glossolalia. In a different moment in Movement 7, Shepherd captures Sanders’ breathing over the reed of his saxophone, creating a crackling human texture most producers would generate electronically. In ancient Greek, the same word, ‘pneuma’, is used to mean wind, breath and spirit. Sanders embodies all three with his barnstorming solo at the end of Movement 7.
Artworks like Promises are significant not only because they are beautiful and evoke a deep emotional momentary response, but also because they challenge our perception of humanity. It does not matter that most of us will never rise to the levels of excellence displayed on this recording. Promises is more than a musical experience, it beckons and carries us towards deep questions and ocean-sized conversations about who we are and who we might be. Do we carry the vision and determination we require to reach higher and fashion the genre conventions of our lives into something vibrant? How do we allow others to speak into our lives and can we contribute to other people without taking over? How well do we listen? Are we congruent, elemental? Are we spiritual?
Listening to Promises is not a short-cut to quick answers, but it is a glimpse of what is it is still possible to do and be in our time and place.