Record of the Week

Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders
“Promises”
(Luka Bop)

Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders
“Promises”
(Luka Bop)

Von Tobias Nagl

When legendary jazz producer Bob Thiele left ABC-Impulse a year after John Coltrane’s death to found Flying Dutchman, he is said to have personally copied all of Coltrane’s unreleased tapes and given them to his wife Alice. Some of the recordings were released by Alice Coltrane in the same year under the title “Cosmic Music”. Another part, however, was released by Alice Coltrane in 1972 under the title “Infinity” and earned her the reputation of a kitsch-obsessed “Yoko Ono of free jazz” among loyal fans. Alice had dared to remix the recordings with symphonic string sections, harp, Indian tambura drones and re-recorded bass ostinatos by Charlie Haden. Not all of those involved were happy about it. Even drummer Rashid Ali, who can be heard on many late Alice Coltrane solo albums, thought, “It’s like rewriting the Bible!”

The young Pharoah Sanders was also a member of John Coltrane’s late ensemble. In the years between “Cosmic Music” and “Infinity”, he and vocalist Leon Thomas created what today is known as spiritual, cosmic, or astral jazz. He should have had less problems with the string movements. These days, the 80-year-old is even releasing an album, “Promises” (Luka Bob), on which he can be heard with the London Symphony Orchestra and which directly ties in with “Infinity”. Since they never actually played together face-to-face – it’s all about overdubs, like in the case of Coltrane. Today this might be considered less scandalous. Not only has Alice Coltrane’s “female” free jazz-écriture long since been rehabilitated, but the understanding of the creative role of studio technology, the dubbing in overdubbing, has also changed since Alice Coltrane and Teo Macero: Representatives of the new jazz scene in Chicago and London like Makaya McCraven, founder and producer of International Anthem, see themselves as cutting and pasting beat makers in the tradition of J.Dilla.

Responsible for the collaboration between Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra is British producer, vinyl digger and DJ Floating Points (real name Sam Sheppard). Sheppard is a “DJ’s DJ” who earned his spurs about ten years ago with highly eclectic sets at the legendary London club Plastic People. Not only were similarly versatile DJs like Theo Parrish among the residents there; the story goes that in the pitch-black, Mancuso-influenced atmosphere, the crowd also went ecstatic to more difficult tracks, such as the 19 long minutes of Pharoah Sander’s cosmic rare groover “Love Is Everywhere.” Sheppard, who named himself after the “floating point numbers” of computer arithmetic, looks like the likable lefty math-and-piano nerd you’d find in any high school class, and his reputation as a highly gifted child prodigy precedes him. As a child, he received classical vocal and piano training at the renowned Chetham Music School in Manchester, and even as a jet-setting DJ, producer, and label maker, he found time on the side to earn a PhD in neuroscience at University College London and to design a rotary mixer with Isonoe.

Unlike Galliano and the acid jazzers of the early 1990s, Floating Points doesn’t attempt to reanimate the jingly and percussive, but danceable and radio-friendly sound of the Afrocentric Leon Thomas-Pharoah Sanders collaborations on Impulse. But the new album also has little to do with the proggy fusion jams of Floating Points’ live band. There is no bassist or drummer on “Promises.” Floating Points plays piano, Fender Rhodes, and an array of acoustic, electric, and electronic keyboards, over which Sanders recorded his tenor saxophone and some initially barely perceptible vocals in Los Angeles in the summer of 2019. One year later, during the first Covid summer, the London Symphony Orchestra recorded the strings, written and arranged by Sheppard, in London, where Shepard also mixed the result. In its restrained aesthetic, “Promises,” which consists of a single piece in nine “movements,” harkens back to the neo-classical miniatures that introspectively interrupted the flow of dancefloor material time and again on Sheppard’s previous two solo albums.

“Promises” opens with a restrainedly percolating and slightly echoed harpsichord appreggio, over which Sanders soon takes up the work with a quiet tone but powerful delay. Later, post-impressionistic string movements peel out of the rising and falling keyboard drones and half-composed, half-improvised saxophone modulations, which over the course of the nine movements only occasionally creep up to the broad-walled Bollywood symphonics of Alice Coltrane. “Promises “also provides a space for the “silence” and the gaps between the structures – on the one hand, this is what the album has in common with the cover art of the great Julie Mehretu, and on the other hand, this is what places it quite confidently in the midst of the ambient and new age revival of recent years. If “Promises” had been released on a private label in the 1980s, it would fetch top dollar in Toronto with the tropical disco and neoclassical diggers of Invisible City Records or the Séance Centre. That, too, is a form of retromania, but despite all the perfectionism, a far more detached one that fits this pandemic spring. The creator certainly doesn’t have a master plan, but, as you can hear from Sanders, he might hold his breathe longer than expected.

English translation by Denise Oemcke

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