Filled with flashes of glee, regret, depression, regretful change and optimistic hope, “Promises” is a serene meditation on these momentary and impressionistic waves of emotion, embodying a cathartic exercise in free jazz supplemented with classical and analog-synth orchestrations. This groundbreaking collaboration between the DJ Floating Points, jazz pioneer Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) was released March 26 under David Byrne’s label, Luaka Bop. “Promises” can be understood as a single piece of music split into nine movements; in its brief span, “Promises” fashions a celestial atmosphere of classical ambience, synth experimentation and raw, free-jazz expression.
Sanders has led an extensive and blistering career within the realm of free and spiritual jazz. First rising to popularity while playing with John Coltrane in the ‘60s, Sanders continued to push the envelope of psychedelic and raw jazz expression, collaborating with the likes of Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra. Without a proper album release in almost two decades, Sanders is likely nearing the end of his career. I can’t help but feel that “Promises” may be one of his final public artistic statements. The other key creator of “Promises,” Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, has been an up-and-coming producer in the IDM scene for almost a decade now, with releases like “Crush” (2019) solidifying him as one of the most unique electronic producers. Shepherd contributed the electronic production across the record and wrote much of the orchestration. Considering Shepherd and Sanders are musicians from very different genres and periods, this collaboration was completely unexpected.
On first listen, I was a bit surprised by how ambient the album truly is. Its preliminary movements stay suspended in an airy and planetary space, kept dangling by the project’s musical motif which is repeated by the LSO’s strings, bells and keys. Out of these beautiful pink clouds of ambience, Sanders’ saxophone shines in full detail. Sanders’ playing across this album is in top form; he sounds just as heartfelt and visceral as in some of his best spiritual jazz records from the ‘60s and ‘70s, yet his sound still feels fresh because he is backed by Floating Points and the LSO.
As Sanders’ initial solo wanes and dampens, Shepherd fills the gaps with Pink Floyd-esque synth leads that glide across the sound stage. “Movement 2” and “Movement 3” hover in this heavenly liminal space of subtle classical progression. These early movements feel like a brand new cocktail of Brian Eno electronic ambience, Steve Reich classical minimalism and Coltrane-esque free-jazz expression. The repeated motif continues to rise and fall with the classical hum in the back, complemented by Sanders’ sax soloing which provides a welcome flavor of human sincerity.
“Movement 6” through “Movement 8” are the real emotional climax of the whole piece. “Movement 6” sees the LSO’s involvement expand to a fully fleshed out symphonic sound; swirls of strings ebb and flow, continually building tension until they crest over like a wave. Each point of apparent resolution is undercut by a new wave of strings pulling the listener in a different direction. The LSO paints a colorful picture which broadly encompasses a poetic spectrum of emotions, almost like a soundtrack to a Wordsworth poem.
In “Movement 7,” Shepherd provides bouncy synth arpeggiations, industrial groans and shrieking sonar waves. Listening to this movement, I imagine myself floating above the stratosphere observing rays of light and dust that reflect off of the exosphere. Out of this atmosphere, Sanders explodes onto the scene with his penultimate saxophonic release; frantically moving up and down the register, he seems on the verge of a divine revelation. Slowly, he settles back down into the quiet and tranquility provided by Shepherd. However, it is still difficult to feel satisfied at this point. Sanders was close to an important breakthrough, but didn’t quite achieve it.
“Movement 8” hangs in a bittersweet atmosphere, a bit melancholic and almost mournful. This movement remains a surprise upon every listen. Following the symphonic romantics of “Movement 6” and “Movement 7,” “Movement 8” should result in a robust climactic release, yet it remains quiet and subdued. Around this point, I continually wondered why there wasn’t a more powerful conclusion. “Promises” suggests a sense of dissatisfaction and irresolution that comes with having an artistic desire to create something perfect and divine; nearing the end of his career, Sanders might be hinting at the eternal struggle for artistic satisfaction. Much of the project is heavily atmospheric, pushing the listener in different emotional directions. My experience with “Promises” felt like being gradually immersed in a surreal world pervaded by peace, only for it to be abruptly pulled out from under me. After listening, I was left with an ephemeral feeling of loss, hope and acceptance. “Promises” is one of the most meditative and therapeutic pieces of music I’ve heard, a unique highlight for both Sanders’ and Shepherd’s careers.