“I didn’t have very much time to work with Pharoah,” says the British producer born Sam Shepherd, “and so I felt this pressure to just constantly be delivering music.”
But Sanders — the legendary tenor saxophonist who rose to prominence in the ’60s playing with John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane and other greats while also distinguishing himself as a luminary of the spiritual jazz movement — put his foot on the metaphorical brakes during those 10 days making music at Sargent Recorders, a studio in Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown neighborhood.
“He was just calming, slowing everything down,” Shepherd recalls. “He was like, ‘Let’s just listen to this,’ and we’d sit there and listen to the whole thing. And then we’d listen to it again, then again. Three hours would pass and we’d just be listening and listening.”
It wasn’t the speed at which Shepherd — an electronic musician accustomed to the pace of the internet — was used to working. Working with Sanders, more than 40 years Shepherd’s senior, felt like a throwback to the era when there was only so much recording tape available.
“We’d sit and listen,” Shepherd continues, “Then Pharoah would be like, ‘I’m just gonna go into the booth and play this phrase over this thing.’ He’d go in there having had listened to it for a few hours and just play something so succinct and meaningful. He knows it so well that he’s embodied it. It’s not like he’s searching while he’s playing, he’s done all that. He doesn’t need to search on his instrument, he’s done the searching within himself.”
This contemplative, unhurried workflow resulted in Promises, the 2021 collaborative album from Floating Points and Sanders, along with the London Symphony Orchestra. Clocking in at 46 minutes and composed of nine movements, Promises is leisurely, deep and often fairly mystic, with the Philharmonic adding moments of climactic grandeur and Sanders’ playing serving as the sonic and spiritual center, his signature tone offering moments of elegance and cacophony.
Released on Luaka Bop, the label founded by David Byrne in 1988, Promises earned wide and high-brow acclaim, getting glowing reviews from The New York Times, The New Yorker — who called it “a remarkably intimate experience — and earning a 9.0 rating from Pitchfork. The album spent three weeks on Top Albums Sales, where it reached No. 32 in April of 2021.
“It took me by surprise,” Shepherd says of this success. “We originally pressed very few vinyl copies, because we thought this was a relatively niche, jazz/classical crossover record. It connected more than we’d imagined. I’d say, ‘Pharoah, you know, people really like this record.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, yeah?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, people really like this record, Pharoah.'”
As the pandemic waned, the two artists — Shepherd in the U.K. and Sanders in Los Angeles — along with their respective teams, discussed doing a one-time only live performance of Promises. The Hollywood Bowl was selected as the venue, and Shepherd booked a flight to Los Angeles to meet with Sanders and make plans. Then, the week Shepherd was supposed to get on the plane, Sanders died, passing away on Sept. 24, 2022 at the age of 81. A cause of death was not given.
“So it was very much a long period of of quiet,” Shepherd says of what happened next. “Then conversations about doing it started to get bounced around again… It took me awhile to warm up to the idea.”
But Shepherd did, eventually, warm. So tomorrow (Sept. 20), almost a year to the day after Sanders’ passing, Shepherd will perform the first and likely only live performance of Promises at the Hollywood Bowl.
Speaking to Billboard on the phone from the Burbank studio hosting rehearsals for the show, Shepherd — enthusiastic, thoughtful and completely affable in conversation — allows that doing it without Sanders being around to give it his blessing “feels a little heavy for me. I haven’t vocalized it, I don’t even think I fully understand it. It’s not a normal thing for a musician to collaborate on a project with someone, and that person is no longer around.”
Without the mythic figure at the center of the project, Shepherd has instead assembled a sort of musical league of legends formed from friends, family and frequent collaborators.
Clearly the most crucial element in designing the performance was figuring out who would play Sanders’ part. Luckily, this answer was also obviou:. British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings is a mutual friend of Sanders and Shepherd’s, who played in Shepherd’s first band and is a person who, Shepherd says, “Pharoah was a great admirer of.” While there’s demand to tour Promises, Shepherd says it simply isn’t possible, given that Hutchings is planning to put down his sax to focus on the flute shortly after the show.
Also in the band: electronic artist Kara-Lis Coverdale, “who every time I hear her play is just the most innovative, interesting electronic music I’ve heard in in my life.” Hinako Omori — “another amazing composer I’ve known for years in London” — will play the celesta. John Escreet, “one of the greatest pianists I’ve ever heard” will keyboard and synthesizer. Jeffrey Makinson, the organist at the U.K.’s towering Lincoln Cathedral and also Shepherds’ brother-in-law, will play an electric organ. Lara Serafin, who transcribed the previously unwritten down Promises into sheet music and “knows the piece better than anyone on a forensic level” will play electronics. Four Tet and Caribou — frequent Floating Points collaborators and also Shepherds’ “bezzie mates,” will play piano and electronics, respectively.
“They get the record because they were there when I was mixing it,” Shepherd says of these two producers and pals. “They were really part of the whole process of it all coming together — and they know me and I know them, and I know how they play.”
The show will be conducted by Los Angeles favorite Miguel Atwood Ferguson, who will guide the band, members of the L.A. Studio Symphony String Orchestra and special guests the Sun Ra Arkestra, with whom Sanders played with throughout his career.
Surveying the gear laid out in the rehearsal space, Shepherd says Promises is, in a way, quite simple, rooted in four looping chords. “On a technical level, everyone can play their parts.”
As such, rehearsals are more about maintaining morale while also getting to the essence of what makes the piece “kind of magical, I guess,” says Shepherd. “That’s something I’ve got to find again from the beginning.” When asked if he knows how he’s going to do that, he answers, “No, I don’t,” with a laugh.
But then Shepherd, who also has a PhD in neuroscience and epigenetics and first connected with Sanders after Sanders heard his smart, spacial 2015 electronic album Elaenia, weighs the question for a minute. He returns to the recording sessions with Sanders, when Sanders would request that they just sit back and listen to the music.
“That sort of calmness and listening more intently is something I need to try and impart on [this] big group by sort of saying, ‘We need to slow it all down, we need to not feel like this is tedious or not getting anywhere, because it is getting somewhere, it’s just that we’ve got to give our patience to this project as well,'” he relates. “That’s something Pharoah taught me, definitely, patience in listening.”
(He adds that, in his own fast-paced fervor, he recorded enough music with Sanders to make another two albums — but says there is no plans to complete or release these projects. Sanders’ 1977 album Pharoah was re-released this week via Luaka Bop.)
Given the mysterious, ineffable nature of Promises‘ magic, I ask Shepherd how he’ll know if the show was a success. He thinks about it, then refers to the album’s “Movement 8,” which closes with a minute of silence before the orchestra comes back in for the climax.
“That’s going to be a pinnacle moment for me — if that silence is really silent in the Bowl, and all you hear is the noise of some of the stage gear and buzzing through the speakers,” he shares. “If I’ve gotten a little corner of this noisey-ass American city just to be quiet, and ten or twelve or fifteen thousand people are sitting there together quietly because the previous 40 minutes of music has just brought them to this place… I would feel that’s a big moment.”
One can argue that having people sitting in slowed-down stillness would be what Sanders would have wanted to happen, too.