“Promises:” Saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders’ final masterpiece

Image courtesy of The New Yorker
Ian MacLaughlin, Contributing Writer

On Mar. 26, 2021, legendary jazz saxophone player Pharaoh Sanders released a collaborative album with electronic producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. It has been widely regarded as one of the best albums of the year and the greatest of Sanders’ albums since his recordings in the 60s and 70s. A year and a half later, on Sept. 24, 2022, Pharaoh Sanders passed away at the age of 81. This makes “Promises Sanders’ final album. It’s also one of his greatest.   

Sanders had made his name as a sideman for the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane.   His first appearance was on Coltrane’s 1965 album “Ascension,” an almost completely structureless spiritual jazz record. Although he already had a few solo albums under his belt, it was his time performing with Coltrane that brought him to the forefront of jazz. Sanders began developing his style of spiritual jazz, featuring loud, blaring and passionate playing. In addition to Coltrane, he was highly influenced by Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, as well as his own spirituality, imbuing his style with concepts like Karma and Tawhid. John Coltrane died tragically young in 1967 after several years spent mentoring Sanders. He left a legacy that Sanders would always live, at least partially, in the shadow of. 

Over the next decade, Pharaoh Sanders recorded some of his most popular albums. In 1969, he released his most famous album “Karma,” an immensely powerful record that still stands as one of the greatest in jazz. He also recorded several classic albums in 1970 with John Coltrane’s ex-wife Alice including “Ptah, the El Daoud” and “Journey in Satchidananda.” Some of his other classic albums from this time include “Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun),” “Thembi,” “Black Unity,” “Elevation,” “Pharaoh” and more.

Over the years, Sanders became less and less immediately relevant. By the late 2010s, he was one of the few giants of jazz from the 60s still alive and performing. Then, in 2015, Sanders learned of electronic DJ Sam Shepard, aka Floating Points. Impressed by Floating Points’ then recent album, the jazzy and dream-like “Elaenia,” Sanders offered to collaborate. The two brought the London Symphony Orchestra to record some string parts, and by the end of 2020, “Promises” was complete. 

So, what is this album like? Well, it’s not an incredibly complex one. “Promises” is built on a short pattern of notes played by Floating Points which repeat continuously throughout the record. Sanders and the orchestra play on and off over this melody. The album is one long composition divided into nine movements, with each movement transitioning seamlessly into the next. 

“Promises” is an incredibly gripping album. The melody underlying everything is gorgeous and otherworldly. Sanders’ playing isn’t as loud as his previous work, but it still feels full of passion and longing. The strings are also quite powerful. They add more drama and emotion to the record, helping to push it to heights that could not be reached with just the saxophone and melody alone. The peak of the album is easily “Movement 6,” which also serves as the climax. The strings swell, and Sanders’ playing is at its most passionate and engaging.  Speaking personally, this is the movement that makes me cry every time I listen. It’s a deeply moving piece, and it achieves this through passion and minimalism.Overall, this album almost feels like Sanders and his collaborators trying to reach another world. The experience of listening to this album is mind-expanding and dreamlike. I felt like I was floating above my own body, away from all the stresses and worries of my life. It’s a spiritual experience that isn’t directly tied to one specific belief system, but still feels vaguely religious in a good way. It feels like the kind of experience that Sanders had been working towards his whole career. It doesn’t sound exactly like his more classic work, but it still has a similar emotional and dreamlike effect. Whether or not this album is the pinnacle of Sanders’ career will probably be debated for decades to come, but “Promises” will certainly be seen as one of the many highpoints in an illustrious career. What a fitting final record for such a legendary musician.

One thought on ““Promises:” Saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders’ final masterpiece

  1. Pingback: The Wooster Voice

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