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Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises (Album Review)

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra


26 March 2021

Luaka Bop

Album Rating 5 / 5

Live Potential 5 / 5

Solo Performances 5 / 5

The new Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra album is pure transcendental magic; a tantalising saga of spiritual jazz, ambient electronica and classical music that feels almost supernatural, but equally incredibly intimate, mystical and soothing.

The Promises project was set up in 2015 by label Luaka Bop after Sanders heard Floating Points' (Sam Shepherd) Elaenia album; Shepherd's own appreciation for Sanders work has lasted a long time and with the story of Shepherd playing Sanders' 'Harvest Time' in its 20-minute entirety at Berlin's secretive nightclub Berghain, it indicates the connection and shared space the two occupy in understanding each other's M.O. to create music.

The album does everything we know both artists can and have already done with their music before, but that in itself is a gift. And with them playing together, it is a dream.

The record has nine movements that flow together as one track rippling out for 46 minutes. It is epic and grand when you understand it as one piece, and it's perhaps inevitable this symphony created by the duo needed an accompaniment by the LSO to add the immensity of the record. Shepherd commented:

“The sound of that orchestra playing with so much space between them felt like this audible manifestation of the times we were living through. It was wide and distant and loose, and as soon as I heard them playing, it was like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place.”

The texture added by strings always carries a spiritual tone to it, and this compliments Sanders renowned free style he has produced throughout his whole career and with playing alongside Sun Ra and John Coltrane back in the 60s. Shepherd's own electronic output has that heavenly glow to it, whether it be with his earlier house and garage productions or through the clean minimalism of tracks like 'For Marmish Part II' around the Elaenia release.

After managing to catch the last few minutes of the non-visual preview of Promises that was broadcast last weekend, the sounds I heard compelled me to approach listening to the album in full in a different way. Drawn in by the dramatic space of the piano, synths and strings that echo out between each phrase, I wanted to listen to the music at a time that could reflect a similarly immersive experience of beauty and calm: sunrise and sunset.

With the natural light moving in time with the music, the light blues emerging in the sky at dawn felt as subtle as the tone of the harpsichord and celesta tingling through the repeated melody at the beginning. Those instruments have an ancient, baroque feel to them, and they create the sense of you hearing an old tale being passed down from one generation to another (and in many ways, Sanders is doing this by sharing his wisdom with Shepherd).

After settling, the focus on your own breathing becomes very conscious and you feel closer to the deep inhaling and exhaling from Sanders with his saxophone. Emotion pours out from each blow emphatically and in a typical impassioned manner; this is where you start to understand the record is not completely peaceful.

Progressing through, the spaces in between start to be filled by light touches of the keys and soaring strings taking flight. Rhythms arpeggiate to make it seem like you're in REM sleep and when the electronics are gently squished out, the celestial feeling warms your heart.

When the dynamics drop, each note grazes you like whispers but as the intensity increases, they bristle against the hairs standing up on your skin and teeter overwhelmingly in an almost agitated manner. The exchange between all the musicians acts as one poetic monologue, it's so intricate in its composition yet there is improvisation that allows the whole piece to move in a liquid state.

It's with the strings taking control towards the midway point that everything surges to a more dramatic suite. You can taste the perspiration dripping off the bows as they slide back and forth with finesse in guiding you to a big climax. Rumbling through like an earthquake shuddering your core, it's when listening at sunset through big speakers it felt like the music was literally changing the mood of the sky into nighttime.

A pins and needles-like sensory overload of electronics in another climax feels like you're being squeezed back out of a syringe into either your dream or reality, whichever world you think this incredible piece of music is happening in. These moments are needed like in any story to contrast against the lighter and more tranquil parts, as it helps you gain greater introspection into your mind and soul.

By the time the record is over, the patience I thought I needed at the start has been transformed into yearning for more. It was interesting to read afterwards in the press release Sanders explaining to Shepherd in a conversation:

"Many times, people think I might be asleep... but in fact, I am just listening to music in my head. I'm always listening... to the sounds around me... and playing, in my mind... and sometimes I dream."

Shepherd shares as well “we’re both searchers. We’re always looking for music that can take us someplace higher.” Promises is a magnificent piece of music, with a trance-inducing motif that heals you from start to finish and takes you higher into a halcyon kingdom.


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