Most of Pharoah Sanders‘ greatest works of the 1960s and ’70s were those of large ensembles. His arrangements on albums like Jewels of Thought and Tauhid would center his playing in key moments—sometimes from the beginning, sometimes not until 10 minutes into a piece, as on “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt.” But his passionate, spiritual leads would always be delivered in the context of a larger whole, a stark and dynamic contrast to a hypnotic and psychedelic whole. These compositions were built on partnership and harmony, the work of his collaborators as much as they were his own. But when you hear the transcendence he channels through the sound of his horn, you’re reminded why it’s his name that’s on the cover.
On Promises, Sanders’ album-length collaboration piece with Floating Points‘ Sam Shepherd, his saxophone emerges early on, a beautiful and enchanting minor-key lead that represents a different kind of performance from the jazz giant in the context of a very different sort of musical creation. From a distance, Promises feels a lot like some of the more massive undertakings of Sanders’ career (or Shepherd’s for that matter), like his album-length spiritual jazz frenzy Black Unity. But there’s no rhythmic pulse, no dense layers of soulful psychedelia, just a reflective and slowly moving set of minimalist electronica guided by Shepherd’s seven-note twinkle and Sanders’ emotional, stunningly beautiful performance. And yes, the London Symphony Orchestra.
From the credits alone, Promises suggests a work of grandeur and bombast, of big ideas and big sounds. And it is, but it isn’t. The concept and perhaps the logistics are grand, but the execution feels at once cosmic and starkly intimate. Certainly, any album that features an orchestra will in large part feel immense, and there are times when this shadowy, late-night meditation reveals glimpses of a boundless universe. But in large part this album is about the two artistic masterminds at the heart of it, Shepherd and Sanders, who provide Promises‘ center of gravity. There are moments when the piece scales back to Shepherd alone, as if to echo the isolation that’s defined the last year for so many of us, and the loneliness that’s inescapable even in a “normal” year. But when Sanders rejoins him, something magical and unpredictable happens, at once joyous and devastating in the best way possible.
There’s not a moment on the entirety of this album’s nearly 47 minutes that isn’t gorgeous; pick a random spot, drop the needle, and find yourself among the most aching, elegant moments of sound to emerge all year. Even with nine months to go, that’s a certainty. But it’s still those moments when you hear Sanders and Shepherd together, one providing a simple but solid foundation for the other to build something fleeting, temporary, but magnificent. It’s a beautiful testament to human and musical connection, a composed and meticulous work that feels warm, affecting and, in spite of its magic, human.
Label: Luaka Bop
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.