Album Appreciation: Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the LSO

Music is a very personal and subjective thing, how we experience it is unique to us. What is a cacophony to one person is a soothing spiritual balm to someone else. Like most other things in life we try to classify our music by putting it into genres, styles and a myriad of sub-categories which can, and often does, lead to disagreements as to what fits where and… more tellingly… what doesn’t.

This can, and should, only take us so far… because such classifications can lead us into sonic silos which can not only lead to our narrowing our musical experience, but can also result in a withering of musical expression and discovery. We come to prefer the familiar rather than the novel… we can get into nostalgic culs-de-sac which may help us in certain ways, but can also lead to a certain sense of stasis…

This album, put together by Sam Shepherd under his ‘Floating Points’ moniker, blows the idea of genre out of the water in a collaboration with free jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra which fundamentally asks us to put aside musical classification and approach this listening experience in a pure and unfettered manner. That he has done this so effectively is testament not only to his adroitness as a composer and arranger, but to Sanders and the LSO for their skilful, open and generous contributions to what I think will become to be regarded as something of a masterpiece.

The piece is split into nine movements, which are very fluid and very much designed to be listened to in a single sitting. For me this is music can you can just be with. It is music that you will want to wash over you, but that will have a profound affect on you in the process. But this is also an intense and almost overwhelming experience which those who wish to use that sort of vocabulary would call spiritual. I certainly would and can feel myself connecting with something that is core and fundamental to my being when I listen to it.

So while ‘Promises’ unites musical styles it is also something of a holistic experience for me too… it is somehow operating on another dimension, a dimension which the atheist in me feels that comes from within me… and the introvert in me thinks of as something of an inward journey for the most part. Certainly Shepherd’s drones and subtle electronics point to a meditative inner journey… there are also points, especially where the LSO strings are at the forefront, where that inner quest is supplemented the presence of panoramic sonic vistas which unfold out in front of me… but I am always still and grounded by these wonderful sounds.

This is a record that has had me in tears on more than one occasion, especially in ‘Movement 4’ when Sanders follows up a few minutes of scatting (the only time there is any vocal on the album) with a sax solo that is typical of the fluidity, warmth and mastery that he shows throughout this performance… it is something that seems to drill straight into my emotional core as we move seamlessly into ‘Movement 5’… but would not in and of itself be as effective without the contribution of Shepherd and the LSO. In one sense this is quiet an ambient composition in that almost disappears as you get further and further into it, and at the end of ‘Movement 8’ there is a moment of quiet, of total stillness, that is conversely the loudest part of the album in terms of the effect it has on you. It is a moment when everything is stripped away and you are just there with yourself staring into a tranquil and reflective infinity pool… it almost feels like the whole point of the piece is to get you to that moment. .. with the relatively short ‘Movement 9’ perhaps there to bring you back to the world again.

I want to stick with this idea of quiet and stillness for a moment, because this is what makes this music special… although this is a collaboration of people from very different musical areas… you never get the sense that there are too many ideas running around, quite the opposite… the stripped back nature of this music is as much about absence as it is presence… it is as much about the space between the sounds as it is the sounds themselves. This is what, for me, adds to the profundity of this music which, in the wrong hands, could have been an absolute disaster… but which instead is an unremitting triumph in the way that gives you just the right amount, even in ‘Movement 7’ when the sound becomes quite cacophonous at times… a moment that is totally worth it because of the way it is resolved.

In a world that seems so divided this, for me, feels like a call for unity: unity of body and spirit, unity of mind and being, unity of inner and outer experiences, unity of musical genres, but also unity for humanity… unity according to age, race, creed and culture… it is a composition that takes diversity in many iterations and rolls it together in an organic and seemingly effortless manner… it is a composition which is truly collaborative, and as beautiful and thought-provoking as anything you will hear…

’Promises’ is out now on the Luaka Bop label.



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