Words by Rafe Arnott, photos provided by Luaka Bop. LP cover art “Congress” (above) courtesy of the artist Julie Mehretu and the Marian Goodman Gallery
In mathematics the difference between an integer and a floating point is a decimal. In electronic music the difference between Sam Shepard and other composers is almost as binary.
Shepard, who works under the pseudonym of Floating Points, is releasing a new hybrid electronic-jazz album with saxophone legend Pharaoh Sanders on March 28 titled Promises. David Byrne’s Luaka Bop record label brought the new LP together on numerous levels. Promises is a continuous piece of music in nine parts and is credited as “a composition for saxophone, strings, keyboards and electronics.” The album consists of the LSO on string arrangements, Sanders blowing sax and providing vocals, and Shepard on piano, harpsichord, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3 and Oberheim 4 Voice… to name just some of the varied silicon-based instruments he brings to the mix.
Photo above: Pharoah Sanders and Sam Shepard in studio at Los Angeles-based Sargent Recordings.
An electronic music composer, producer and DJ known for his stark, sophisticated soundscapes which serve as foundations for further compositional explorations, Shepard’s formal musical background was shaped by his time at Chetham’s School of Music in the UK where he studied piano before earning an epigenetic and neuroscience PhD from University College London.
According to Eric Welles-Nyström of Luaka Bop, The idea of involving Pharoah is something that the label initiated. “[It’s] something we worked on for years. I played Sam's music for Pharoah years ago, which got Pharoah interested in Sam. We then spent years in trying to get them together…” Sanders was unequivicol when it came to discussing Shepard, saying “I think Sam is a great musician, and one of these geniuses just walking around on this earth. I love the way he plays, and I love the way he writes.” Shepherd was effusive about Sanders, saying that “There’s something about the saxophone, about the way it amplifies the player’s breathing that makes it feel like you’re inside their body. Listening to Pharoah play on this piece, it was like the instrument was an extension of his being, like it was a megaphone for his soul.”
Photo above: Left – Pharoah Sanders (born Farrell Sanders, 1940) and John Coltrane in this undated, early '60s photograph courtesy PAM.
In 1958 Ira Gitler penned the phrase “sheets of sound,” which the Downbeat jazz critic coined to describe John Coltrane’s unique improvisational playing style on Soultrane. It has also been used to describe Sanders’ playing, with British writer Val Wilmer noting Sanders "was involved in the search for 'human' sounds on his instrument.” 1965 saw Sanders incorporate human-like growls, cries and shrieks to his playing lexicon which, upon the announcement that Coltrane was adding him to the band prompted Gary Giddins to pronounce “Those who had followed Coltrane to the edge of the galaxy now had the added challenge of a player who appeared to have little contact with earth.”
Appraising Shepard’s slowly-unfolding career of releases, it is difficult to not draw a comparison between epigenetic study (“…the heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence. The Greek prefix epi- implies features that are on top of the traditional genetic basis for inheritance.”) and how he layers song structures. The test pressing of Promises which I received in early February, seems to add further empirical data to how Shepard utilizes this technique.
Photo above: The RTi-pressed, Chris Bellman-mastered, test pressing of Promises.
The album is comprised of recording sessions on two continents. LSO takes happened at Air Studios in London, with Jeremy Murphy and John Prestage overseeing engineering and recording, respectively. Sanders' and Shepard’s sessions were put to tape at Sargent Recorders in Los Angeles, with engineering by Sean Cook. Shepard oversaw final mixing and Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering cut the lacquer. The die cut, gatefold LP jacket with cover art “Congress” is courtesy artist Julie Mehretu and the Marian Goodman Gallery (the test pressing I received in early February, came as they are want, in a plain white jacket).
The music is transcendent, with the recording/mastering/pressing displaying all the qualities marking an LP production chain beyond reproach – it is liquid smooth, ethereal, startling and dynamic all at once. Plus, dead quiet in the groove. There is a long silence during the last track on the B-side... which you just keep digging into because within that black background there is a subtle hint of ambient space to the recording. Quietly, the music floats back in. Brilliant from a compositional standpoint in its capability to hold the listener. If you’re looking to add electronic jazz albums to your collection this year, Promises would be an excellent start.
For pre-ordering information, go HERE.