Credit: Eric Welles-Nystrom
Music by Michael Doub

Best Albums of 2021: Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / London Symphony Orchestra | Promises

January 8, 2022

#3. One of the more immediate musical trends to take hold post-Covid was a noticeable shift toward quieter dynamics, embodied most visibly by the singer-songwriter ASMR of Taylor Swift’s folklore/evermore diptych and Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, but also more broadly in an ongoing ambient music renaissance and certain inward strains of the underground rap landscape. The shift is easily, and perhaps too conveniently from a critical perspective, explainable via our more solitary sociological moment, though it’s still difficult to imagine Promises — a live album featuring producer Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd), saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra as collaborators — arriving to ears more attuned to its invocations than our current ones. Indeed, Promises emerges as a consensus year-end favorite among numerous outlets and constituencies, its champions running the gamut from jazz-heads to poptimists to rockists. Whatever the motivations that inspire these different groups to celebrate the record may be, the diverse body of support is somewhat fitting for Promises, an album whose component parts — among them insistent keys, quavering strings, and the journey of Sanders’ tenor saxophone around and above them — are themselves diverse, seeming to coexist in a sort of liminal space on the album. Largely recorded in 2019, Promises arrived this March in sync with our since-adjusted volume settings, its thoughtfully metered rises and falls providing harbor in a year whose real-life peaks and valleys arrived more chaotically.

Promises is organized around a single seven-note pattern played on harpsichord, which inaugurates — and repeats throughout — most of the album’s nine movements. The album-length composition was conceived by Shepherd, whose solo records as Floating Points navigate the club and classical genres with a crate-digger’s expertise, and here achieves a sustained mood whose elegant minimalism recalls the tone poems of Brian Eno. Yet in true “live record” fashion, Promises’ structural conceit is deepened through the alchemy of in-person collaboration, with Shepherd and co. locating moments of unexpected overlap within the album’s architecture of echoes. Sanders — a proper living legend at 80 years old — is arguably Promises’ focal point, his saxophone weaving together a legible emotional throughline in a 46-minute suite largely defined by stasis and sound design. His intuitive approach treats the album’s central pattern as both example and counterpoint, with airier ascents on Promises’ first few movements mimicking the harpsichord’s cadence and calm, and later moving against it with rapid-fire barrages and searching declarations on “Movement 5” and “Movement 7.” If an unusually contained environment for Sanders, he makes convincing bedfellows of his peers here, taking the baton from the London Symphony Orchestra with delightful trills and hums on “Movement 4,” and teeing the group up for their show-stopping full orchestra swells on album centerpiece “Movement 6.” Together, the three parties have realized several paradoxical feats with Promises: a work which eludes definition despite being built around repetition, one that remains ambiguous despite its conventionally beautiful moments, and an ambient jazz album released in 2021 that was a “must listen” event.