“On March 26, we will share with you a new composition by Sam Sheperd […]”. Briefly introduced at the beginning of March 2021 by a short 4mn voiced-over presentation featuring black & white stills, namechecking the musicians and the recording locations, the “Promises” project quietly emerged on the contemporary music scene with an immediate aura of mystery and magic. Featuring veteran American tenor saxophone player Pharoah Sanders, British electronic musician and producer Sam Sheperd aka Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises is a 46mn uninterrupted piece of music divided into nine movements.
In a rare move in the current 24/7 digital age, no preview single was released, nor were any promotional advance copies sent to radio DJs or major news outlets. On 26 March 2021, both the general public and the music publications were on the same page when it came to the official launch, and many radio shows played the entire record on that day. Released on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, Promises became an instant best-seller.
Promises is a magnificent meditative journey, a living and breathing composition at the confluence of electronic, jazz and modern classical music whose otherworldly heartbeat is sustained by a looping 7 note sequence recurring every 9 seconds throughout the entire piece. Pharoah Sanders’ beautiful tone on the saxophone features very early in the first movement and magically morphs into the musician’s own voice for wordless vocals in movement 4. The full orchestra features extensively on Movement 6. Movement 8, which concludes with a minute’s silence is more electronic with Sam Sheperd playing a wide array of electronic keyboards and vintage synthesisers.
The superb blend of strings and saxophone recalls Alice Coltrane’s majestic early 1970s orchestral jazz albums such as World Galaxy (1972), Eternity (1975) or Infinity (1972), her rework for orchestra of unreleased John Coltrane pieces. The use of the celesta in the looping motif calls to mind American ambient composer Harold Budd’s 1978 Pavilion of Dreams album. As a composer, Pharoah Sanders is no stranger to the long form either – his songs “The Creator Has a Masterplan” from Karma in 1969 or Black Unity in 1971 were both over 30mn long.
As well as that, the record is both a listening and visual experience. Functioning as a film score, Promises is a sonic illustration to the 182 x 243cm abstract painting by Ethiopian American artist Julie Mehretu entitled Congress (2003) adorning the cover of the album. It is only seen through the three die cut trapezoid shapes on the LP sleeve which are echoing the shapes within the painting. The die cut concept of the LP sleeve itself is a reference to Ornette Coleman’s 1961 Free Jazz – A Collective Improvisation album sleeve which revealed a Jason Pollock painting.
A centrifugal dash of patterns and colours blending structured straight lines with chaotic swirls and calligraphic-like scripts, with multi-coloured shapes that evoke buntings, flags, corporate logos or religious symbols, Congress implies a gathering of some kind – in a sports arena, in a grandiose government building, in a place of worship or even a battleground. As an artist, referencing architecture, landscape, abstraction and urbanism, Julie Mehretu’s paintings reflect on change, politics, nationalism, history, colonialism and multiculturalism in contemporary society.
The maze size and complexity of Congress therefore invites a more detailed exploration. On April 24 2021 last, Promises: Through Congress, a collaborative film by Trevor Tweeten was premiered and streamed in partnership with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and The Broad in Los Angeles. With the score as a sonic illustration, the film is a slow close up study of the entire painting. Promises: Through Congress will get its UK premiere on 25 August 2021 and will be hosted at the Barbican.
I wanted to perpetuate this idea of being centered in the middle of the painting with its details swirling around you and this film is an extrapolation of that idea, of being in the middle of this perfect storm which only slowly reveals itself. Sam Sheperd
A long form piece of ambient orchestral jazz that demands to be appraised as a whole, uninterrupted and undistracted, Promises is a bewitching, multi-sensory and moving invitation to pause, listen and reflect.