Since breaking through as an anointed acolyte of John Coltrane in the 1960s, and even more since his own outflow of spiritually charged albums in the '70s, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders has possessed a seeker's sound, a voice on his instrument that seems to harbor cosmic secrets.
When he turned 80 last October, the avant-garde lodestar granted a rare interview to the Los Angeles Times. Speaking with Randall Roberts, Sanders was terse yet revealing, especially on the topic of inspiration: "Just let the music come, and spend as much time as you can listening." And what does that listening entail? "I listen to myself so that I know what I need to work on," he replied, "and I let that be my guide."
In this respect Sanders is far from alone. His sound has been a guide spanning generations, including the one that includes Sam Shepherd, the British DJ, composer and electronic artist known as Floating Points. Promises is the perfectly unlikely product of their collaboration — a gorgeous, gemlike album that readily fits few of the descriptors often applied to either artist. Rather than a beat-driven hybrid of jazz improv and electronic music, it's a long form suite scored for the London Symphony Orchestra, grand in scale but startlingly intimate in its effect.
Floating Points has proved adept at creating immersive sonic pictures studded with intricate details; that was the m.o. on his acclaimed 2015 debut, Elaenia, as well as a 2019 follow-up, Crush. Structurally, his Promises suite builds on a signature motif: a seven-note arpeggio that slowly twirls like a hanging prism as shimmering light passes through.
Sanders last released a proper album, the Bill Laswell-produced soundscape With a Heartbeat, more than 15 years ago. He is silent, or nearly so, for long stretches of the Promises suite — but his spirit of watchful reflection sets the overall tone, and with his every susurrating or strident phrase on tenor, he imparts a centering clarity.
Shepherd — credited on a dozen instruments, from harpsichord to Hammond B3 to ARP 2600 — brings an egoless sensitivity to every exchange. And his orchestration for the London Symphony strings, rather than recalling the lush romanticism of a precedent like Stan Getz's Focus, feels as subtle and inexorable as a slow-moving weather front. In every sense, Promises suggests a thoughtful accommodation: Shepherd too has looked to Sanders' sound as a guide, creating new conditions in which it can thrive.
Which is not to downplay the richness in the writing, which uses texture to articulate forward motion. From one moment to the next, a lone violin traces a mournful line, or an analog synth unspools a cool beam, or the strings accrue a crush of massed dissonance, or an organ hums with cathedral solemnity. Sanders, of course, is the leading man, whether he's vocalizing in a meditative babble or expressing the earthier timbre of his horn. And at the same time, he's a Deus ex Machina — emerging from the mist to share enlightenment, from someplace deep within.