Pharoah Sanders’s Grand Return

Pharoah Sanders’s Grand Return

A new collaboration with electronic producer Floating Points has led to a modern-day masterpiece for the jazz master.


Not everyone loves the piercing sound of Pharoah Sanders’s saxophone. It’s a sonic signature so polarizing that, in his 50-year career, he’s become something of a bête noire among listeners and critics alike. In the mid-1960s, as jazz transitioned from straight-ahead bebop and hard bop, Sanders, along with saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, helped pioneer a frenetic blend of spiritual jazz that, through shrieking horns and loose rhythmic structure, was meant to summon higher powers. The idea, it seemed, was to blow the sax so hard that the music reached God’s ears.

This technique had its detractors: New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett once likened Sanders’s playing to “elephant shrieks” that “appeared to have little in common with music.” Dennis Hunt, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, called it “primitive” and “nerve-wracking.” Neither Coltrane nor Ayler would live to see this strain of jazz become popular: Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967; Ayler died three years later under mysterious circumstances. The Holy Trinity of spiritual jazz had been winnowed to one: Sanders, the Son to Coltrane’s Father and Ayler’s Holy Ghost.

Now 80 years old, with nearly 40 albums to his credit as a bandleader, Sanders is an icon—albeit a reluctant and reclusive one—whose catalog (a heady mix of soul, free jazz, and spiritual jazz) has only appreciated with time. While Sanders isn’t the leader of Promises, his new album composed by Sam Shepherd (an electronic producer known as Floating Points) and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, it still feels like a grand return for a legend whose iconoclasm influenced a generation, be it fellow saxophonists like Shabaka Hutchings, the rap producer Madlib, or Shepherd himself. On paper, Sanders and Floating Points is an odd pairing—the former a jazz luminary, the latter a key figure in dance music. But there’s a strong synergy, as if Sanders and Shepherd were guiding each other through the music without any preconceived notions of what it was purported to entail. Sanders was introduced to Shepherd’s music by a representative of the record label Luaka Bop, who played Floating Points’ then-unreleased album Elaeina for him in 2015. Sanders said he’d like to meet the artist one day. The two eventually got together, first in London, then in a Los Angeles studio to record this composition in 2019.

Though Promises is separated by tracks, or “movements,” as they’re called here, it’s essentially one long composition meant to be played in one take. In that way, it recalls Sanders’s 1971 album, Black Unity, as a single tune split into two parts for the sake of vinyl playback. But where Unity was upbeat jazz, Promises is an ambient record, which is perhaps the natural synthesis of Sanders’s and Shepherd’s styles. Here, we find an atmospheric swirl of saxophone wails, gentle chants, abundant strings, and hovering synth chords, skewing closer to Sanders’s ambient work in the late 1990s.

There’s a prevalent calm to this collaboration, and even in its loudest moments—when the orchestra’s string section arises in “Movement 6,” and when Sanders matches Shepherd’s ascending synths with thunderous brass at the end of “Movement 7”—the album sustains its meditative aura. The resounding moments are met with equally riveting stillness, which bolsters the individual movements and adds to the LP’s overall brilliance. That’s due to Shepherd, the record’s composer, who, across his own solo work, has proven himself a master of sonic tension. He likes to slowly fade-in his music, letting it simmer for a few minutes before bringing it to a boil.

In the case of “Peroration Six” and “Apoptose, Part 2,” the concluding tracks on Elaeina and 2019’s Crush, respectively, Shepherd ends the songs abruptly, just as they crescendo. While Shepherd typically does this within the scope of a two-to-five-minute song, Promises is a long, slow climb with pronounced peaks and valleys along the way. Tying this all together is a subtle loop of strings, electric key chords, and acoustic piano that serve as the album’s heartbeat. The coil sounds gorgeous on its own, scaling upward as the instruments on top become more luxuriant. At certain points, when the strings and horn are stripped away, the loop resets to its original blend, doubling as a bridge to the next section. On “Movement 4,” for instance, the arrangement recedes, and Sanders fills the space with delicate hums and scatting, the only vocals we encounter in the 46 minutes of music. And his voice sounds pleasant, albeit weathered; his faint coos provide even more warmth.

By “Movement 5,” Shepherd’s keys intensify, and Sanders meets the mood with a fairly powerful saxophone solo that briefly darkens the aura. Throughout the album, Sanders proves he still has some of the vigor of years past. Perhaps because of age or the album’s orchestral intent, his saxophone never reaches that cacophonous squeal of his youth, but the quieter approach works best on a subdued work like Promises. Closer to the end of the album, Shepherd opts for cosmic flair, pulling buoyant synths from his production equipment to envision what floating in space might feel like; the movement’s pitch-black composition is both beautiful and weightless. Light percussion rises in the mix, and Sanders returns with his fiercest horn work on the album, a volcanic, quick-blasting solo bolstered by Shepherd’s keys and otherworldly electronics.

If there’s a track that aligns closest to Sanders’s musical aesthetic, it’s “Movement 8,” the album’s gospel-centered section, where Shepherd concludes with a prominent organ solo that reminds me of something I’d hear on bygone record labels like Strata-East or India Navigation, which specialized in underground artists who integrated jazz, gospel, and soul into their work. Indirectly, Shepherd’s playing recenters Sanders as the album’s cult hero, taking listeners back to an era when records like his Karma and Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda helped make him a star. While Shepherd rightfully gets top billing as this album’s architect, I can hear his deference to Sanders throughout. And who could blame him? It’s likely not often that he gets to build with a pillar like this, whose open-mindedness and exquisite playing have coconstructed something like Promises. In the end, they and the London Symphony Orchestra have compiled a masterpiece that, like Sanders’s classic work, will only get better with each passing day.

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