’I imagine he’s in the universe, listening to the music’: floating spots on his landmark album with Pharoah Sanders | Jazz

ohn 24 September 2022, minutes after the death of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, Sam Shepard arrived at a hospital in Los Angeles, surrounded by his family members. Hearing that the titan of soulful jazz had suffered a stroke, Shepard left a DJ gig in New York halfway through. When he finally reached Sanders’ bedside after a flight to the West Coast, he was comforted. „I was glad to see his spirit slowly leave him, because he seemed so peaceful,” she says. „He really felt like he was with us, in his usual meditative state. We were playing music for hours in the room, just listening to the music Pharaoh liked.

The previous year, Sheppard (under the name Floating Points) had released one of the decade’s most acclaimed albums, Promises, with Sanderson and the London Symphony Orchestra. The contemplative, 46-minute, nine-movement suite ended up being the spiritual jazz titan’s final recorded breath. Mostly instrumental, Promises ebbs and flows, driven by Shepard’s patient, extravagant arrangements. Oceans of strings wash over waveforms and countermelodies, whose materials include rickety upright piano, harpsichord, celeste and vintage synthesizer – and Saunders’ breathy, expansive tenor sax and concise, glorious vocals.

Promises won almost universal acclaim and a Mercury Prize nomination, but neither Shepard nor Sanders did any interviews, preferring to let the record speak for itself. There was another reason, says Shepherd. „It was bigger and better than I could handle. So once it came out, I was too afraid to talk about it, I guess. And I never think about the things I’m involved in. It’s never good enough. I’m always thinking: 'What can I do to make it better?’

Four years later, Shepard and Sanders got together in a converted two-story house in LA to launch Promises, and Shepard decided to talk about the album for the first time as she produced a live performance of the album at the Hollywood Bowl. „Hearing Bairoa breathe through his saxophone feels like entering his soul,” says Shepherd, who calls it „this weird black hole you can teleport into, into the player’s lungs.”

Pharoah Sanders performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2014. Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP

The promises were the culmination of a remarkable career for Sanders. With a humming saxophone vibrato that sounded like the center of the earth, he began in the early 1960s as a member of Afrofuturist jazz visionary Sun Raw’s orchestra before joining John Coltrane’s band in 1965. Saunders’ work with Coltrane and his widow Altrez was dynamic and meditative, a reflection of the spirituality that fueled his music. He is best known for his solo jazz albums of the late 1960s and 1970s. Karma, hope And Monotheism. His 1977 album Pharoah is one of the jewels in his repertoire Reissued as a box set and what Sleevenotes describes as the „expressive feeling that was considered joyous during the bebop and free jazz eras”. Over the past decade Saunders’ ideas have inspired a new generation of musicians, particularly in London’s jazz scene.

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Sanders and Shepherd met in 2015 through a mutual friend. They sealed their friendship a few years later when Shepherd showed him around London. Shepherd says, „Even late in life, he was still talking about an okra curry we had: 'Is that place still there?’

By 2019, Sheppard was an established electronic producer, DJ and composer with a jazz background, but he was still insecure when Saunders suggested they collaborate. „He’s like: 'So what do you want to do?’ I was like, I’ve never made an album before. He asked Sanders for ideas. „Oh, I don’t know,” Sanders replied. „What do you have?”

Sanders didn’t always get along with collaborators in the studio. A tense session for Pharoah in 1976 led to Sanders falling out with label boss Bob Cummins, and he became frustrated and almost rejected the album. Rather than risk a rock start, Shepard struck out on his own, „finding instruments and synthesizers around LA, and I wrote for two days”. He came up late one night on the magical chords playing Promises, and the session engineer began to fall asleep.

„I could hear it all in my head, and now I realized that something beautiful was forming,” says Shepherd, who created the melodic theme with harpsichord, piano and celeste (who was in the studio). Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds) were used. Then cut down the record by 25% to create “such a catchy, rich sound. Hearing the playback was like fireworks going off in my head. I was like: 'I know what I’m going to do now.

Sam Shepherd, AKA Floating Points, performing at the 2021 All Points East Festival in London.
Sam Shepherd, AKA Floating Points, performing at the 2021 All Points East Festival in London. Photo: Jim Tyson/Getty Images

Sanders returned to the studio and they began demoing Shepherd’s ideas, including those bracelets. Shepherd watched the saxophonist’s reactions closely. Asking for possible starting points, „He’ll be a little uninterested in his small frame. But with [these chords]He looked at the speakers and looked at me – 'uhh’ – and gave me this approval that I hadn’t had before.

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As Sheppard reflects on the experience, his voice comes alive, finally able to express a deeply gratifying experience he’s internalized for so long. He is the unique character of the studio’s harpsichord and Tones generated by Puchla Synth; He was frustrated by the sound of the saxophone in many classic jazz pieces – „I find it sometimes not as lively as it is in a live setting” – and recalls being concerned about Sanders’ frail physical condition and „stress” during the recording. , what we do here should be intentional”.

As a Sanders devotee, Sheppard admits to being overwhelmed by the responsibility: „This may be his last recorded sentence. So I made the last sentence he read go something like this: 'This may be his last recorded sentence.’ All those things were going through my head. Maybe they shouldn’t have been, but I was with him every day. I knew the reality of what was going on here. It was beautiful, but there was a little sadness inside me.

Shepherd was keen to focus on what he called the „in-between sounds” of the soundtrack, such as „Leslie’s creaking wooden switches”. [speaker] Cabinet goings and maneuvers of instruments. Listens to the thumb strap and listens for breathing. All sounds outside of the musical content are actually very important to exist in the world of this piece. Sanders’ spontaneous vocal outburst during the fourth movement „has something very ornithological about it,” he says. It is like the song of birds.

A poster for the upcoming Promises concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
A poster for the upcoming Promises concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo: Julie Mehretu

Shepard pauses when he mentions Sanders’ voice in the promises. „I don’t know how we’re going to make it to the Hollywood Bowl. I really want to leave it at that. I want it to be a reminder of Pharaoh’s absence.

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The bowl concert was originally planned with Sanders center stage. The artist, who used a wheelchair late in life, was to perform parts of his promises, and will be joined by Comet’s tenor player Shabaka Hutchings of Is Coming and Sons of Kemet. „Pharaoh was always listening to him,” Shepherd says. Every time I meet him in LA he says, 'How’s your friend Shabaka?’ and describes him as 'great and strong, like a lion’.

A few months after Sanders’ death, the Hollywood Bowl and the Sanders/Shepard team revisited the Promises concert idea. Everyone agreed that this would not be a tribute event. Joining Floating Points and Hutchings are Kieran Hepton (AKA Four Dead), Don Snaith (AKA Caribou) and the Los Angeles Studio Orchestra.

Even if it’s a one-time performance, Sanders fans will get a chance to hear Harvest timePharoah is the centerpiece of the box set and hit 5m streams on YouTube this fall and in 2024. The Harvest Time project is billed as „an ever-evolving concert” and premieres on November 12. Who is Le Guess? festival in Utrecht, and Tisziji Muñoz, the album’s original guitarist. It was one of the first events allowed by the Saunders Estate after his death, envisioned as a way for the artist’s spirit to linger in the ether.

„I imagine where he is,” Shepherd says, „floating around the universe, listening to music in all the sounds he can hear. He’s sitting in the garden listening to crickets and drawing music from it. He’s listening deeply.

Promises performed at the Hollywood Bowl on September 20. Farrow’s box set was released on September 15 by Luka Pop. World Premiere of The Harvest Time Project: A Tribute to Pharoah Sanders Lee Guess Who? Festival, Utrecht, 12 November; It arrives in the UK at London’s Barbican on November 16 as part of the London Jazz Festival.

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