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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.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. danmac50 #

    A beautifully measured response to an album that is clearly dividing many. I listen to it annoyed by its adjacency to banality but also soothed by Sanders’ tone and (what remains of his) authority. As you say though, we have Hawkins and others albums to listen to if we want something else so when the moment is right this will do nicely

    March 30, 2021
  2. Richard, I very much share your argument „against“ this production. It does not work (jazz)aesthetically because – as you point out – here we have a brillant soloist, distracted from the background that guaranteed this art, and that is interaction.
    My additional argument against it is that the keyboards-parts are utterly boring and old-fashioned.
    After reading press bits from serious media on this and listening to what they did speak about,
    I can hardly recall a false alarm greater than this.
    My remaining question is: why did Pharoah Sanders take part in this?

    March 30, 2021
    • Bedria #

      Well its the pandemic and not much work for musicians Pharoah included.

      March 31, 2021
  3. Mr Williams
    Thank you for the lucid analysis of this new work. I listened to the premiere online and was underwhelmed by it. Praise must go to the creators, there’s a warmth in floating point that comes through in interviews etc. He must have loved the idea of playing with Mr Sanders. About him, we must be grateful for his work and inspiration, but it may be fair to remember that his spiritual jazz became weaker, new age one might say, over the years. The fact that is 80 and one of our musical heroes should not make us idealise him: this is not his strongest work, let’s just hope he will produce more and in more congenial settings

    March 30, 2021
  4. Tim Adkin #

    Very thoughtful piece Richard regarding the art of a major figure but also touching on the ageing process both on the artist and the listener. There’s always been something of a dichotomy with Pharoah’s work which often manifested itself in sides 1 and 2 (in old money terms) of his albums being very different such as, from the Impulse! years say, ‘Live at the East’ and ‘Love In Us All’.The fact that Sanders is still with us and still recording in itself is a cause for rejoicing and if it’s merely ‘perfect Sunday morning listening’ this time around – well that’s not so bad is it?

    March 30, 2021
  5. Mick Steels #

    The Melody Maker followed the example of DB some years later when the first Mahavishnu album was reviewed by two critics.
    I seem to remember one chap marvelled at the technical facility of the group whilst the other scribe described them disparagingly as a supercharged version of ELP.

    March 30, 2021
    • Tim Adkin #

      If memory serves the chap who ‘marvelled’ in MM was sometime contributor here Chris Welch whilst the naysayer was none other than RW himself! Remarkably RW then gave a very favourable review, a few months, later to ‘Birds of Fire’ with a comment along the lines of ‘This should be compulsory listening for those who thought ‘Argus’ was the best album of last year’. Unfortunately this effort by Pharoah sounds like it’s more along the lines of ‘Apocalypse’….

      March 31, 2021
  6. Martin Hayman #

    Errr…’transcendence’. Pragmatical dogs, subeditors!

    March 31, 2021
  7. Sedat Nemli #

    I agree, Richard. This is primarily a Floating Points album, soothing at best, with bonus sax embellishments. While a player of Pharoah Sanders’s name and stature undeniably add prestige, I got the feeling it could just as well have been anyone else.

    March 31, 2021
  8. Bedria #

    Definitely Shepherds album with Pharoah paying a visit. But it is promoted almost as Pharoah headlining which is a bit disingenuous. Not bad to listen to though.

    March 31, 2021
  9. Dennis Smith #

    Richard, thanks as always for such a beautiful piece of writing which has helped me to better understand how I feel about this disc. I have found previous reviews to inadequately describe it’s weakness and my own reaction had been “ I love this, but….” .
    Much clearer now thank you, although I still love it!

    March 31, 2021
  10. Now a bit late, to be a vital part of the discussion but anyway: i belong to those who love this album from start to end. In the beginning, I didn‘t even want to listen to it: it seemed just a good marketing idea to bring together a legendary saxophone player, a rising star of electronica, and some elements of new classical music. But finally I listened to it. And was thrilled.

    Nothing here is underwhelming in my ears. And I‘m a huge fan of Pharoah Sanders‘ TAUHID, and other Impulse stuff with his name. In the 70‘s John Coltrane‘s Live In Japan was a regular companion, with Pharoah, Alice, Rashied… that said, what these albums from the past and PROMISES have in common: I only want to listen to them as a whole, no bits and pieces.and they send me places. A record for special moods and occasions, for sure, but really one that sends me places. Absolutely sublime, even on a Saturday night.

    September 27, 2021

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  1. The Pharoah Sanders Floating Points Collaboration: Is It Any Good? – TDE Promotions

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