reviewed by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
Promises may have only just been released, but it is a high-level collaboration five years in the making. Floating Points, the electronic alias for Sam Shepherd, teamed up with senior jazz royalty Pharoah Sanders to record their parts for the album in Los Angeles in 2019, while the orchestral parts, arranged by Shepherd, were set down by the London Symphony Orchestra at Air Studios in the summer of 2020.
What’s the music like?
The album is essentially one span of music lasting three-quarters of an hour, divided into nine sections. Everything germinates from a deceptively simple seven-note motif given out by the keyboards at the start, and from this minimal and seemingly unremarkable start a gradual climb of intensity begins.
Sanders is used sparingly, which makes his saxophone contributions all the more meaningful. The statement in Movement 1 has a spiritual air. Shepherd, too, operates well within himself as far as density of musical notes is concerned, supplying dappled colours in response to the saxophonist’s chant-like figures. This is notable because anyone who is familiar with the rich, luminous colours of Floating Points’ previous album Crush will know the energy and rapid movement his music can generate.
The influence of Ravel remains as part of the orchestral style, especially at the start of Movement 2, where everything is written in thrall to the saxophone, giving Sanders the room he needs to work his magic. Promises develops as a meditation, the seven-note motif underpinning almost everything. Movements 3 and 4 develop a vocalise, the addition of a glockenspiel giving a sound that glitters at the edges. Sanders returns with greater urgency, then pulls back to a magical and breathy Movement 6, where the long lines of a solo cello shine. This ushers in the strings’ big moment, and with a swell of intensity the musical waves crash on to the shore.
From here the tide pulls back, giving room for more thoughts from Sanders. This time the build is towards a more dissonant but similarly exultant climax, reaching for the skies in a musical murmuration of upper strings and electronics. From here everything subsides to a peaceful close, the seven-note motif murmuring for one last time.
Does it all work?
In every way. Many collaborations between electronics, jazz and / or symphony orchestra miss the mark because of balance issues, with everything turned up too loud or with too many notes given to too many instruments, or because one or more of the musical parties are not on the same wavelength. This makes Promises all the more remarkable, for even the LSO strings, adding their contribution a year hence, are fully in the moment.
The ‘less is more’ approach of this collaboration pays off in every way. Sure, the music is slow moving, but that is an essential part of its appeal, a meditation for large forces securing the most intimate of responses.
Is it recommended?
Without question. Promises is an enchanting album, spanning its magic across the 45 minutes – after which the listener will simply wish to repeat the experience. It crosses genres effortlessly, appealing to fans of jazz, classical and electronica without becoming rooted in any of those areas. It is simply wonderful music for meditative thought.
Intriguingly we are told to ‘stay tuned for the next chapter of Promises, which will be announced soon’. If that proves capable of following up what is already one of the best albums of the year, we will be well and truly spoilt!