How an 85-Year-Old Jazz Veteran Signed the Most Laureate Album of 2021 | Culture | ICON


“He could be her grandfather! And yet they understand each other perfectly ”, exclaims José Miguel López when he tries to explain some of the peculiarities contained in one of the most valued albums of 2021 that has just ended. Possibly the last work of consensus that the history of recent music has produced. Talk about Promises, Signed four hands by the electronic producer Floating Points (35 years old) and the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (81 years old), accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. López, the mythical presenter of Radio 3 with more than eleven thousand programs behind him and a lifetime on the microphone, is clear that this piece, with a duration of 46 minutes and 9 movements, is not a coincidence.

“They have hit the bullseye. It is a sublime work. The structure is already striking, with a string section that plays with enormous intensity. And then the warmth of the sax. It is a combination that does not surprise me that it has been valued by many others ”, observes the voice that was in front of Discopolis for 34 years. Promises, which moves comfortably between spiritual jazz, the ambient and the most expansive electronic music, has conquered the lists of half the world, rising to the top positions of specialized magazines and prestigious publications. Mojo, Time, Paste, The Guardian, New York Times, Vinyl Factory, Uncut, New Yorker Y Wire they have placed him in the top three of the year, most at number one.

Other spaces, like Pitchfork, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post The The Telegraph, in its top 5. And a wide selection of media, where they are BBC, Financial Times, Le Figaro, Liberation or EL PAÍS, have considered that it had to be mentioned among the most noteworthy of the year. Is it really that bad?

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Much consensus and some doubt

“It doesn’t seem so round to me,” says Alex Sánchez, Babelia critic for works of a more experimental nature, where this work could be included. “Let’s say it is an accessible album, but if it helps people know the trajectory of Pharoah Sanders, fine.” Sánchez puts his finger on the wound in a format and a sound, in the wake of what was done in the seventies – the so-called spiritual jazz of labels such as Strata East or Black Jazz, which in recent years, as a result of the work of authors such as Kamashi Washington or reissues of incunabula by Alice Coltrane, is once again of interest. “Spiritual jazz is in fashion and there is a certain trend, also in classical music, towards kinder or more listenable sounds,” he reflects.

Sam Sheperd, alias Floating Points.
Sam Sheperd, alias Floating Points.RENEE STAMATIS

Javier Blánquez, music journalist and author and editor of one of the electronic bibles, Loops 1 Y Loops 2, gives other keys to its possible inclusion in so many and varied lists: “There are three factors that may have helped the album have such good reviews. On the one hand, there is the one that a prestigious electronic producer participates, but does not make an album focused on that genre. Second, that at his side is a jazz glory, which many know from his relationship with John Coltrane. And third, that all of this be covered by a symphonic orchestra “, sums up Blánquez, who also values ​​the fact that it is a well-armed and well-studied LP. “It’s an album that had already been sold before it came out because there are two figures behind it that no one questions.”

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Javi Bayo, designer, DJ, collector and also selector of great compilations (among them the volume América inverted for Vampisoul), opines: “The fantasy of combining them in a unique project has captivated people. And it is very good that both of them have dared to do it ”. But he also highlights the difficulty of liking his followers, “because it creates a territory halfway between the two worlds.”

Pharoah Sanders is an institution within the jazz universe, his first recordings with figures like Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra or John Coltrane already belong to the history of the movement. Later, works like Karma, Tauhid The Thembi they placed him as a true innovator within the most meditative currents of the genre. On the other hand, Sam Sepherd, under the alias Floating Points, has invoiced some of the tracks most outstanding electronics of this last decade: the same was close to the house or the techno that was attached to ambient jazz with critically acclaimed records such as Aelania, the album that motivated Sanders to collaborate with him.

In Spain it has been said of Promises that “the music that spills, calm and everential, is among the most beautiful and dazzling that has been heard in recent years, a harmonic river that flows and grows with such an astonishing naturalness that it seems the product of a dream kneaded by benevolent gods ”(Juan Cervera, in Rockdelux). Also that “it is a fusion more than a clash, a symbiosis and not at all a collision, apparently miraculous, between two languages ​​that liquefy into a minimalism that challenges our current concept of time, jibarized by the fleetingness of the click, of the like, of meme and of the cuteness fifteen seconds (Carlos Perez de Ziriza, in Mondosonoro).

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A young Pharoah Sanders, photographed in 1968 and unable to imagine that an album of his was going to be the highest rated by critics in 2021.
A young Pharoah Sanders, photographed in 1968 and unable to imagine that an album of his was going to be the highest rated by critics in 2021.Gilles Petard (Redferns)

For Carles Novellas, host of the program Parallel 3 on Radio 3, the album gives off warmth and sounds great, “but I also have to say that it bores me a lot and that I haven’t enjoyed it like other recent albums in a more or less similar vein. Nala Sinephro’s is the first that comes to mind ”. His analysis regarding the prevailing taste is also highly critical: “We live in a time of standardization of tastes and the commitment of media and prescribers to known sounds and patterns. In that sense, we also know that the vindication of veteran cult musicians (Scott Walker, Gil Scott-Heron) works very well at a critical level, and from there to the viralization in networks and the generalized enthusiasm there is only one step ”.

An anti-stress disc

In any case, the alignment of the stars so clearly is not normal, nor is it easy. To this should be added the pandemic moment in which it happens, with a certain fondness for recollection. “I have suffered from anxiety due to the pandemic and his music, placid in listening, has helped me to cope better,” says Arnau Sabates from Primavera Sound’s international recruiting department. For Frankie Pizá, in the creative direction of the same Barcelona festival, accessibility is a point that he puts in value. “This is not an album by Albert Ayler or Anthony Braxton, who have a very high access and enjoyment curve. Is a suite accessible and open-plan, without too many edges, where both artists coexist in a playful way and without anything seeming accessory ”, observes the one who was also creator of the specialized website Radio Concept.

Other points that should not be overlooked are its proximity to genres in vogue and its affiliation to a renowned label. Pizá comments it precisely: “It is not a novelty that jazz is experiencing a remodeling of its ideals, ethics and aesthetics through, above all, the traction that artists such as Shabaka Hutchings are generating in the United Kingdom. A few years ago no one would have imagined someone like the saxophonist collaborating with Louis Vuitton; not Kamaal Williams or Yusef Dayes. In this sense, contemporary jazz, with new codes, is managing to get rid of its more antiquated face and reintroduce itself into the mainstream. lifestyle dominant. I think this fact has a lot to do with a renewed interest in Pharoah Sanders and ancestors of, precisely, Shabaka Hutchins ”.

Portada de 'Promises, de Floating Points Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra.
Portada de ‘Promises, de Floating Points Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra.

The reading of contemporary codes, ascribing to these sounds, traditions and names, have helped to Promises be seen as an unusual modernity, both for experts and neophytes. David Byrne’s label, Luaka Bop, who had already been in charge of rewriting the history of glories such as William Onyeabor, Tim Maia or, much longer ago, Os Mutantes, collects the witness of this type of figures, but updating the way of do it. It is not a reissue, but an original work.

Instrumental minimalism

”His ability to go against the current is valuable to me at a time when records are hardly heard in a row anymore. It is a work designed to be enjoyed from the beginning to the end. With the climax in its central part ”, stresses music journalist Pablo Gil. Its minimalist, repetitive and, at times, almost insistent character on the same basis is another of the characteristics that conquered Gil. Something that Giovanni Russonello wanted to emphasize in his review for The New York Times at the time of Promises’ release, the week of March 25: “For most of the piece, a simple motif is repeated – a sinuous phrase of just a few notes, played on a harpsichord, piano, and synthesizer, that rises and falls to the rhythm of the breathing of a giant sleeping person – as a harmonic progression of two chords is repeated around it ”.

That an instrumental album has achieved such unanimity should also make us reflect. Lara López, who has been linked to this type of imaginary for more than three decades –Dialogues 3 The N.A. are part of his career, in addition to the one he currently performs on Radio Clásica, Possible Music– Remember how not so long ago instrumental compositions and artists, with a fondness for dejection and placidity, were not taken into account. “This type of music was previously considered minor. There were many critics who left her aside and even looked at her with disdain. Tastes have changed and now they are rightly thought to be beautiful ”.

Finally, Marcos Gendre, author of Miles Davis: The Oceanic Big Bang, hits the mark when he sums up everything previously said: “This album can be sold as an experience, as a generational clash. It is really how they have sold it and how it has really worked. And this is how it finds its space on a massive scale ”. Beside him, he also mentions the work of pioneers such as Max Richter or very previously allied artists of the ECM record company. A look at the past that, it seems, is the only way to move towards the future. Calm, stealthy and without raising her voice.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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