Tag Archives: Luaka Bop

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra, “Promises”

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!
Imagine if you will . . .

From silence, a seven note riff on piano, celeste and harpsichord, cycling over two repeated bass notes. Recorded so intimately you hear the piano’s damper pedals lift, as much a part of the cycle’s rhythm as the melodic tones.

About a minute and a half in, the cry of a saxophone. First responding to the keyboard cycles, then skirling continuously over them. Electric piano creeps in to fill the empty sonic crevices while the London Symphony’s strings pass above, dividing from a unison note into clustered washes. The blues are unmistakably evident from Pharaoh Sanders’ first note — and somehow the emotion he conveys is echoed in the ethereal, dissonant orchestral blanket.

The riff cycles, the sax and strings ebb; Sam Shepherd (aka Floating Points) steps forward with hesitant, mellow yet insistent synthesizers. Then, unexpectedly, Sanders vocalises — running scales, lip trilling, removing his horn from the equation and trusting us with his unadorned humanity, to gripping, gorgeous effect.

As he picks up the sax again, the mood and the eternal motif shift to match. Darker, thicker keys in a minor mode support grittier, more active improvisation and a stark synthesized squall by Shepherd, before subsiding to quiet counterpoint behind the unending riff.

Sanders leaps in once more — only to give way to a sustained, yearning solo cello solo that awakens the orchestra. The meditation that ensues is another moment of sheer beauty — gigantic, suspended unison lines that become a breathtaking mash-up of spiritual jazz and the English pastoral tradition, John Coltrane and Ralph Vaughan Williams locked in brotherly embrace.

The string chords pile up, mounting through consonance to dissonance — then collapse! In the ensuing silence, a quiet violin, answered by electric piano. Then, Sanders — this time so hushed, yet so gritty and breathy, over a fragile web of keyboard accents strung across the unstopping riff. A distant synth joins the dialog; Sanders cajoles it closer, helps it take more definite shape, then backs away, as Shepherd fires up free floating sequences across the stereo field and weaves a solo around them.

For the final time, Sanders breaks loose above the echoing, fading field of electronic sound, both conjuring up both the heady free jazz of his youth and the measured maturity of his long career into a memorable melodic volley. Shepherd returns to his subdued accents on synth, organ, electric piano; the riff patiently continues to cycle. Silence resumes its initial place in the piece, now dominant but not triumphant.

Until the riff stops! In its place, thick, ponderous organ chords that trail off into vibrato and echo. Total quiet; a slow-growing cloud of treated strings that burst into glittering fireworks, then subside into the final silence.

Fortunately, you don’t have to imagine this. Floating Points’ remarkable collaboration with Pharoah Sanders and the LSO is real. And moving. And my favorite album of the year to date. Listen to it below, then get it for yourself via Bandcamp.

— Rick Krueger