Today we are graced with very, very few of the great jazz musicians of the past. After the passing of Chick Corea less than two months ago, someone associated with the later years of jazz fusion along side Miles Davis, we're left with only a select few like Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin to remind us of where jazz once was. This is no great surprise as many of the great jazz releases in history came from the late 50's and early 60's before it faded away from the limelight, replaced by the rise of rock music. Pharoah Sanders is one of those last living souls associated with greats like John Coltrane, having an incredible career and prolific collection of works spanning back sixty years. Promises, a work completed with electronic artist Sam Shepherd under the name Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, is a late-career epic and gorgeous melding of classical and jazz instrumentalism, seeping a light through the cracks of that faded history.
The album is a collection of nine movements that coalesce into a full 45 minute piece, highlighted by Sanders on saxophone and built on delicate, minimalistic composing that eventually swells into a grand orchestral movement. Floating Points, who composed the music that the orchestra performs here alongside Sanders, utilizes a less-is-more technique that leads to a spellbinding and spiritual experience instrumentally. The short harpsicord motif heard at the beginning of the album is repeated on loop through the vast majority of Promises, only at times fading as the orchestra becomes larger or on the seventh movement in which trickling electronics dominate. This small motif is the link that connects these movements together as they delicately transition from moment to moment, often in subtle ways and sometimes in more unexpected ways.
Sanders throughout is the true apex of Promises, as any moment that spotlights his saxophone work is a blessing to behold. His performance weeps on Movement 2, soars on Movement 4, and shatters into chaos Movement 7. Even his vocalizations on Movement 4 are a pressing moment that builds the strangely hypnotic aspects of Promises, providing a break in pace that is hard to forget. As moving as Movement 5 is when the orchestra rises, or dizzying the avant-garde keys become on Movement 8, Sanders exhibits why he is and will always be a visionary of his craft.
Promises is a patience-testing album but comes with unending rewards when experienced in a full motion. The rarity of such a subtly complex piece of music is worthwhile regardless of who is behind its creation, but when a musician like Pharoah Sanders is in the fold you know it is a can't-miss moment in modern music. We may only have a few moments left with the jazz classics of yesteryear, and that only brings a greater grace when they come.
Favorite track: Movement 4 (which is hard to say when this is truly a full-album experience)