May 2021

Arts & Letters

Always tomorrow: ‘Promises’

By Anwen Crawford

Photograph by Eric Welles-Nyström

Legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders joins electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra for a compositionally minimalist album

In 2015, six years ago almost to the month, Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophonist and a lion of jazz, last played in Australia. His set was performed with a local pickup band at Sydney’s Carriageworks, and reprised several compositions by the late John Coltrane, whose band Sanders joined in the mid 1960s – but these were not the tempestuous sound-paintings that would confirm both Coltrane and Sanders, on albums like Ascension (1966), as leaders of the free jazz avant-garde. Instead, Sanders reached back to the Coltrane of “Lazy Bird”, from the 1958 album Blue Train, and “Olé” (1961), the former a pacy workout in hard bop style, the latter a smoky, bluesy take on Spanish themes.

These compositions, more than 50 years old, were an indication of the sheer scope of Sanders’ musical understanding, which, when taken together with his frail physical bearing – white bearded, slow on his feet, he sat in a chair while the other players soloed – lent the evening a valedictory air. I assumed, as I imagine others did, that this was the last I’d hear of Pharoah Sanders in the 21st century.

What a wonderful surprise, then – especially after the past year, during which every notion of surprise or wonder seemed to vanish amid each day’s anxieties – to find the now octogenarian Sanders in brilliant, invigorated form on Promises, his new collaborative album with British electronic musician Sam Shepherd, who records as Floating Points. The album also features the London Symphony Orchestra. It makes me happy, the very idea that during 2020 someone – in this case Shepherd, as composer and arranger – held on to enough ambition to want to record an album with an orchestra. It suggests a certain luxury of thinking in the face of disaster.

But though Promises is often texturally luxurious it is also compositionally minimal: keyboard instruments, strings and saxophone all ripple together through and around the repetition of one arpeggio. The combination of expansiveness and discipline creates for the listener a sense of both infinitude and the miniature, like a planetarium. Unfurling over nine “movements” of varying lengths, though the piece has no real breaks, the record is a sonic planetarium.

It begins in darkness, with each of the initial iterations of the seven-note arpeggio lighting up like a constellation. As with many musical terms used in English, “arpeggio” comes from Italian – in this case from arpa, harp, and there is something very harp-like, and pin-bright, in Shepherd’s arrangement. He plays the repeating, broken chord on piano and harpsichord, the part-melodic, part-percussive presence of these instruments hanging in the cosmic deep, or so it seems. But if you listen closely, on headphones, you’ll also hear the sound of Shepherd shifting his weight on the piano stool, and the sound of the instrument’s keys as he releases them. Intimate, human sounds on a human scale.

After a minute and a half, Sanders plays his first notes on the saxophone, his comet melodies streaking and falling amid the other instruments. The warmth of Sanders’ tone and the compassion of his ear – with each of his phrases reaching into the harmonic potential of the music and out towards the listener in generous faith – remind me of nothing so much in his catalogue as his work with Alice Coltrane, widow of John, on her career-defining 1971 album Journey in Satchidananda. Like that mesmerising record, Promises exists somewhere between genres: part jazz, part modern composition, part something eluding a label. Both albums draw from experimental musical practice while also possessing an immediacy of mood and an unashamed loveliness.

And though it arrives in the world as a surprise, perhaps there is something inevitable about the collaborative partnership of Promises, in so far as both Sanders and Shepherd, in their different though complementary ways, are in pursuit of musical immersion as a means to achieve heightened consciousness. That probably sounds like New Age guff, but what I mean by it is a kind of listening through which we become aware of, and responsive to, a piece of music as it takes place in time, and also in our apprehension; when music is not a background hum, as we so often allow it to be, but a presence we complete with our attention.

Shepherd’s first album as Floating Points, Elaenia, was released in 2015, the same year that Pharoah Sanders played at Carriageworks, incidentally. The album impressed Sanders enough that it was he who reached out to Shepherd with the suggestion that they work together. Elaenia combines some of the principles of dance music – an emphasis on rhythm, the use of electronic programming and loops – with an extensive use of “real” instruments (strings, voice, drums and guitar). There’s no discernible boundary between what might have been played live and what was constructed in the studio; the album slips in and out of musical spaces both fantastic – quietly so – and earthly.

I happen to think that Elaenia is one of the best albums of the past half decade, but the paradox of albums like it – and of Promises, too – is that, in its subtlety, it can pass for the very sort of background music that it’s not designed to be. You have to move towards it, and be willing to immerse yourself: then it will reward you, every time. The second Floating Points album, Crush (2019), made more prominent use of electronic drum programming and synthesiser, and was oriented more clearly than Elaenia to the dance floor. A track like “Anasickmodular”, for instance, combines a syncopated UK garage beat with the buzz of a Buchla modular synthesiser; the song enacts its title, sounding both liquid and staccato.

Shepherd is a multi-instrumentalist, as is Sanders, who began his long career as a drummer and played clarinet in high school. Sanders then switched to alto saxophone before taking up the tenor saxophone, his signature instrument.

Sanders’ reputation as an avatar of the avant-garde was forged during his two years in John Coltrane’s band. “I don’t feel like he needed me or another horn,” reflected Sanders last year in The New Yorker, in a rare interview. Coltrane was also a saxophonist, and he and the younger Sanders would improvise with an urgency that still conveys, on record, a tussle over molten sound.

Sanders’ later albums as a band leader would carry on, and extend, this transcendental ambition, but they are not so dense or esoteric as imagination – or reputation – might lead you to believe. Free jazz, like poetry, is a form that people often approach in fear, or out of fear refuse to approach at all. But again, if you can give yourself over to the moment of the thing – its rhythm and tempo, its tone and cadences – without, to swipe from John Keats, any irritable reaching after fact and reason, then its riches will be revealed. Sanders’ magnum opus, “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, which appeared on his 1969 album Karma, has its share of molten moments, with Sanders’ deliberate overblowing on the saxophone like someone spewing hot, rough lava into the air, but there are also playful, almost goofy elements to the arrangement.

That playfulness is present still in Sanders’ musicianship, especially when, on Promises, he decides to add his voice to the instruments. His soft groans and exploratory, babbling noises, like an infant on the verge of speech, only last a short passage during Movement 4, but they bless the whole recording, and grant Sanders a new lucidity when he switches back to saxophone through the rest of Movement 4 and 5. His tone is full of yearning, his phrasing slow and then restless; the arpeggio continues to ascend and repeat, ascend and repeat, behind him, but Sanders carries the piece in these sections. At the start of Movement 6 he is answered by a poignant cello solo, played by David Cohen of the London Symphony Orchestra, around which the rest of the string players gradually rise, building from long, bowed phrases to a momentary interruption of pizzicato and then a shimmering wall of tremolo – the aurora of the piece – before they fall away.

Sanders is heard last on Movement 7, his tone bluesier now, with more air in it, frayed and fading, but just when you think the whole piece might be about to disappear it’s overtaken by a synthesiser, and then Sanders blasts out again. If this is his goodbye on record, it’s fitting to his great accomplishments. And it might not be goodbye. The planetarium closes for the day, but there’s always tomorrow, when the universe gets made again.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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