Upper and lower Pharoah
In 1962, when the editors of Down Beat magazine received copies of John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, the first recorded evidence of the extended improvisational methods being explored by the saxophonist’s extraordinary quartet in front of jazz-club audiences, they broke from the standard practice by inviting not one but two reviewers to give their judgments. This was a recognition of the significance and the controversial nature of an album whose centrepiece was the track titled “Chasin’ the Trane”, a 16-minute manifesto for the new freedoms. Those editors must have been gratified by the response: one critic welcomed the sense of opening up fresh territory, while the other threw up his arms in horror.
Confronted by the latest recording to feature the distinctive tenor saxophone of Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane’s former colleague, I feel like slipping into both roles. Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra provokes two entirely different responses, perhaps of equal validity.
Floating Points is the name adopted by the DJ and electronic musician Sam Shepherd. The album consists of one Shepherd composition, 47 minutes long, divided into nine movements and created in collaboration with his featured soloist. It is, in effect, a concerto grosso for tenor saxophone, with Sanders drifting and out of the instrumental passages, and also — as has been his wont in the past — adding a brief wordless vocal to one passage.
The LSO’s equal billing is a little misleading. Their resources are used sparingly; nowhere is there the sense of an orchestral tutti, although the brief final movement, which feels like an epilogue, is for the string section alone. Shepherd’s various keyboards — synths, B3, celeste, piano, harpsichord — provide the basic palette, stating a basic seven-note motif that runs, with slight variations, through the first eight movements. If I were to reach for an easy description of the mostly subdued, mostly slow-moving sound he creates, I might say that it resembles like the result of an imaginary collaboration between Nils Frahm and Brian Eno’s generative music app, with the spirits of Terry Riley and Arvo Pärt smiling down on the proceedings. There’s a bit of Necks in there, too, particularly when the B3 takes over in the eighth movement.
And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Perhaps even more than fine. The sounds are carefully chosen and artfully deployed — I’m tempted to say “curated” — in order to fashion something a little more active than ambient music: the colours and densities shift regularly enough to retain the interest. Sanders adds the necessary individual voice, as Wayne Shorter did to Gil Evans’s “The Barbara Song”. Yet his unmistakeable tone arrives almost more like a benediction than as a full participant.
Which is the problem (if there is one, of course). Sanders comes from a musical idiom that emphasises collective interplay and creativity in the moment. There’s none of that here. He plays quite beautifully through the first two movements, filling the spaces between the keyboard leitmotif with finely grained and graded phrases, but even on the fifth and seventh movements, where he stretches out a little, he’s applying his figurations on to an essentially passive undercoat. It couldn’t really be further than the stuff he got up to on Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard Again! in 1966, when the point was to shock the listener into a heightened awareness rather than lull him or her into a beatific trance.
The younger man in me revolts against this. Of course I’m 50-odd years older now, and so is Sanders, who turned 80 last year, and the times are different. But stimulating new settings can be devised for even the freest improvisers of Sanders’s vintage. In 2004 Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack invited the saxophonist John Tchicai to respond to a series of electronic pieces and were rewarded with John Tchicai with Strings, a real classic. Alexander Hawkins drew a similar reaction from another distinguished saxophonist, Evan Parker, on the recent Togetherness Music.
On the other hand… Sanders was always looking for different trajectories to transcendence. Tauhid, the first of his recordings for the Impulse label, remains one of my favourite albums of the Sixties, not least for the gentle, blissful “Upper and Lower Egypt”, although it was created in real time with improvisers of the calibre of Sonny Sharrock, Dave Burrell, Henry Grimes, Roger Blank and Nat Bettis, all of whom were rising to meet a challenge. There’s no such challenge in Promises, if challenges are what you’re looking for in music. What is it, then? Is it a lower form of the art? As I discovered at the weekend, it’s perfect Sunday-morning music. And thus I remain divided, content to have bought it because I know I’ll play it again, with enjoyment. But I also know that while it’s on, I’ll be feeling that probably I ought to be listening to something that makes a few more demands.
* Promises is out on the Luaka Bop label.