Pharoah Sanders and Floating Points Meet in the Atmosphere

When Pharoah Sanders first heard “Elaenia,” the stewy and transporting debut album by the British electronic musician and composer Sam Shepherd, who performs as Floating Points, he was rapt. It had been almost two decades since Sanders, the tenor saxophonist and American jazz eminence, had released a major new album, but he said he would like to try working with Shepherd.

The natural affinity between the now 80-year-old Sanders and the 34-year-old Shepherd makes sense. Despite the generational differences, they’re united by an impulse toward constant expanse, and both see healing as central to the role of music. And each of them is interested in how duration works as a kind of artistic medium in itself.

On “Crush,” his most recent solo album, Shepherd treated techno and house beats as a laboratory for experiments into the possibilities of disarray, while incorporating sophisticated orchestral arrangements. He recorded the album quickly at his home studio after a long tour, where he had honed his new creative direction in front of audiences while opening for the British band the xx. It meant that even as his composing delved more deeply into classical inspirations, he was in conversation with dance music.

But “Promises,” his new collaboration with Sanders that will be released Friday, came about in a different way, over a week together in the studio in 2019, and rather than techno its deepest grounding is in a kind of minimalism. It’s basically one continuous 46-minute piece of music, written by Shepherd, though it is broken up into nine separate tracks, labeled “movements.” For the majority of the piece, a simple motif repeats — a twisty phrase of just a few notes, played on harpsichord and piano and synth, rising and disappearing at the rate of an enormous person’s sleeping breath — as a two-chord harmonic progression recurs around it.

Shepherd adorned this with sometimes-spare, sometimes-soaring string arrangements, which the London Symphony Orchestra plays in conversation with his aerial synthesizer lines. Not until the latter half of the album does the orchestra fully come alive, with a rich and immersive passage on Track 6 — sometimes regal, sometimes bluesy — that almost eclipses the motif, but not quite.

And then there is Sanders’s tenor saxophone, a glistening and peaceful sound, deployed mindfully throughout the album. He shows little of the throttling power that used to come bursting so naturally from his horn, but every note seems carefully selected — not only to state his own case, but to funnel the soundscape around him into a precise, single-note line.

Like some of Shepherd’s synth phrases, Sanders’s saxophone sometimes announces itself faintly: You’ll just hear him breathing softly through the mouthpiece, or tapping it with his tongue, before he passes a full note through the instrument. When he plays his final notes of the album, at the end of Track 7, he does not so much disappear as become one with Shepherd’s web of humming synthesizers.

Sanders is known for pioneering a manifestly spiritual approach to jazz, having taken the mantle from John Coltrane, his former boss, after Coltrane’s death in 1967. But before joining him Sanders had also worked in the mid-1960s with Sun Ra, the visionary bandleader, who converted Sanders’s given name, Ferrell, into Pharoah, and taught him by example how to reimagine the possibilities of a large ensemble. From his first release on Impulse! Records, “Tauhid” (1967), Sanders made suite-length pieces with medium-to-big ensembles that spanned multiple sections and hovered at various registers, as if traversing the layers of the atmosphere.

Floating Points insists on something similar, in a different context. Listen to the synths and bubbling bass percussion of “Elaenia” (2015) or “Crush,” and then listen back to the commingled mallet percussion and reeds and wobbly bowed strings on an old Sanders track — say, the title piece of his 1972 album, “Wisdom Through Music”: It’s easy to toggle between them and stay in the same head space.

Like Sanders, Shepherd had some of his earliest exposure to music in church, as a choirboy at Manchester Cathedral. He later earned a Ph.D. in the field of neuroepigenetics in 2014, studying the role of DNA in processing pain; his music, heady as it is, can often seem like a therapeutic bath. Where other virtuoso electronic composers these days, like Holly Herndon or Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), might use their control over our senses to unsettle, Floating Points usually feels like he’s taking care.

He plays with sound at just about every frequency audible to the human ear; headphone listening will sometimes reveal deep bass rumbles or vanishingly high synth lines not fully audible through computer speakers. In the way of a great orchestral composer, he will introduce a particular synthesizer voice very faintly in the greater swarm, bringing it in gradually.

Shepherd has also put our relationship to the natural world at the heart of his music, echoing a theme in Sanders’s work. His 2017 film-and-music project, “Reflections: Mojave Desert,” included recordings of the sounds of the desert swirling amid the post-rock he made with a band.

Sanders’s music has always sounded like both an environment and a pure emotion, and his long, harmonically constant pieces could almost disabuse you of the entire idea of a start and an end. Nowadays, losing track of time is nearly impossible. On “Promises,” the greatest gift Shepherd has given us is that rather than emulating any style or genre from Sanders’s past work, he has found the nonmusical information inside it. By listening, he has heard how to slow down.

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra
“Promises”
(Luaka Bop)

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