The facts, such as they are, are easy enough to recount. Floating Points, the nom de electronica of British musician Sam Shepherd, spent much of the last year composing, directing and playing on a set of nine orchestral movements performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Once those nine movements were more or less complete, Floating Points had the spiritual jazz legend Pharoah Sanders play both within and without the music. The result is a quiet, studied masterpiece, and one of this year’s best albums.
The music, such as it is, defies easy descriptors, defies the easy classifications of genre, and in Sanders’ playing, even defies the strictures of what saxophone playing on a record is supposed to “be.” How do you describe music that plays like ASMR for the soul, a finger-tapping on your subconscious, in whispered grace? How do you describe what it’s like to listen to this album as you spend your 13th straight month inside, fearing that your nephew — born in quarantine — will never know your face? How do you describe the string swells in “Movement 6” that can bring you to the verge of tears? How do you describe an album that is so hushed that at times you think your internet has gone out and your streaming service is stuttering in response? How do you describe the repeating musical figure here, that starts to feel like a mantra, a repeated salvation from the void? How do you describe how an album feels like a replacement of your daily Lexapro, but which leaves the sound of the rest of existence feeling rushed, scary and impersonal?
You can’t. But you can formally admire Sanders, whose playing is often overshadowed by his autobiographical details — he worked with Coltrane! — but who, for the better part of 60 years, has been chasing the ability to articulate universal feelings and truths via his saxophone. He never tried to sound like anyone else; he only wanted to sound like it, it being everything and nothing at all. I’m sure he’d say he’s still working on that, but listening to Promises, it’s hard to feel like he hasn’t at least partially achieved that. This isn’t jazz, but something else entirely. It’s orchestral, it’s cinematic, it’s devotional, it’s… I don’t know what else. All I know is that it’s the album I want to spend the next month living in.