Saturday, June 11, 2022

Album review: Promises

In a 1947 interview for its Jazz Book, Esquire asked drummer Gene Krupa to expand on whether he thought jazz had influenced classical music. After giving the reasons for why he thought it hadn’t—conductor Leonard Bernstein said it had—Krupa ended with a hope: “I want to hear a jazz solo weaving its intricate, dynamic melodic line across the powerful harmonies of a full symphony orchestra. I want to hear a quartet or trio of horns improvising against the background of fifty violins.”

Promises, a new album by 34-year-old electronic artist Sam Shepherd, 80-year-old jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra, may not be exactly what Krupa had dreamt of, but it’s a unique achievement. Written by Shepherd, who performs under the moniker Floating Points, as a continuous 47-minute composition, it blends jazz and blues structures with classical arrangements and electronic textures. And it does this cohesively, maintaining a hushed nocturnal mood across its nine “movements”.

The first of these begins with the seven-note motif that recurs through the piece, played simultaneously on what sounds like harpsichord, timpani and keyboard. Sanders enters around the 90-second mark, playing within himself, but with great feeling. The motif fills the gap between his phrases, rather like the interplay between John Coltrane (whom Sanders came up under) and Duke Ellington on In A Sentimental Mood. The short second movement continues the spare but romantic feeling, like a lost noir film soundtrack, Sanders playing over subtly insistent strings.

Promises is a headphones album, superbly recorded to emphasise Shepherd’s subtle arrangements (conducted by Sally Herbert) and little bits of electronic noodling. Movement Three adds more elements that shouldn’t work in the mix—bluesy organ, the wail of a Theremin—except they do. Sanders returns, delightfully, as singer, starting off with burbling noises, like an inquisitive pigeon, then some gentle scatting and humming. When the saxophone bursts in midway through the fourth movement, it’s more forceful, a beautiful sustained tone that carries into the next.

After the sweeping, purely orchestral sixth movement comes the most perfectly realised segment—this record’s single, if you will. It begins with the now familiar tinkling motif. Sanders enters, playing breathily, intensely, in the lower register. Shepherd layers this with barely discernable wails in the higher register, and spirals of electronic sound that increase in volume as the piece progresses. A harp joins in. As the textures become denser and denser, Sanders cuts loose with a climactic flurry of notes.

That’s the last we hear of Sanders in the piece. Two movements follow, a seven-minute one led by the same bluesy organ we had heard earlier, and a two-minute one that’s a more traditional symphonic ending. Though Sanders’ contributions are tasteful and he more than deserves a showcase like this, this is Shepherd’s achievement. Anyone who accuses him of dabbling should hear the first track on his last album, 2019’s Crush, in which jazz and classical influences are clearly discernable.

There is, of course, the danger of upsetting three separate gangs of purists with this kind of effort. Is it jazz without prominent bass and drums? Is it classical music if a saxophonist improves over a string arrangement? If your answer is “yes” or even “no, but who cares?”, then Promises is the sort of crossover that dissolves boundaries and sparks joy.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

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