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Amid the storied history and towering discography of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), 2021’s Promises stands out as perhaps their most ambitious recording ever. It’s uncommon for major orchestras to release standalone recordings of pieces outside the standard classical canon — Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and the like — and it’s even rarer for those few recordings to be as nonconforming to classical conventions as Promises. From the first few harpsichord and celesta notes and the lengthy silence that follows them, it’s clear that Promises is not your standard symphonic work, even if it pretends to be one with its orchestral instrumentation and multi-movement form.

For Sam Shepherd (also referred to as Floating Points), who composed Promises, the album is similarly a total departure in style with only a façade of continuity. Like his prior music, Promises is broadly a hyper-repetitive electronic album, but that’s where the similarities with Shepherd’s usual dance floor techno end. Instead of a looping, continuous drumbeat, the piece features a recurrent 28-note melodic motif intertwined with powerful moments of total silence.

It’s hard to believe that something like Promises could be as impactful as it is given the gulf between both the musical styles and core audiences of Floating Points and the LSO. But serving as the project’s lynchpin, visionary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders bridges the musical divide between traditionalism and innovation while elevating the piece to unprecedented heights. As Shepherd and the LSO pass the piece’s motivic idea between themselves and venture into unexplored musical territory, Sanders is there to guide the way with passionate and mesmerizing saxophone solos that showcase the raw power of his unrelenting endurance, his defiance of giving in to a culture that has been shifting away from him for most of his life.

Born in 1940 to a musical family, Sanders broke into the jazz avant-garde as a band member of free jazz pioneer Sun Ra in the 1960s. Even though Ra’s dense and dissonant orchestrations don’t provide many opportunities for his band members to demonstrate conventional musicianship, Sanders made the most of solo opportunities to showcase his distinctive airy tone, which fit perfectly into Ra’s abrasive ensemble sound and would become the foundation of Sanders’s own solo career years later. While the highly experimental music Sanders contributed to spurned mainstream appeal, his playing caught the attention of John Coltrane, who, at the high point of his career following A Love Supreme, recruited the younger Sanders to join his band in his effort to continue pushing musical boundaries. Coltrane would tragically pass away shortly thereafter, but Sanders continued his ascent. On 1971’s Journey in Satchidananda, a project by John’s widow Alice Coltrane, Sanders occupies the limelight with some of the best solo playing of his career, but he also fits in seamlessly with Coltrane’s larger spiritual vision, proving himself an elite jazz collaborator unafraid to put his own stamp on his music.

Then, of course, there’s Promises, Sanders’s hyper-ambitious collaboration with a symphony orchestra founded in 1904 and Floating Points, the DJ who began releasing music in 2009. The first movement of the piece is, perhaps naturally, a bit clunky: Sanders’s sax solo protrudes above the LSO’s simple homophonic gestures and Shepherd’s subdued electronics. But, mirroring the trajectory of Sanders’s career, Promises evolves from its brash fledgling state into something beautiful and transcendent in its second and third movements, as Shepherd’s electronics come into focus and Sanders finds a way to perfectly integrate his playing into the ensemble. Just like on Satchidananda, Sanders’s playing always commands attention, but it’s never the only focal point in the musical texture.

While Pharoah Sanders’s features are highly impressive, his output of solo albums in the late ’60s and early ’70s established him as one of the greatest jazz band leaders of all time. Despite the fact that many of Sanders’s songs run for 15 minutes or more, he makes the most of every second, taking the listener on a musical journey every time. On The Creator Has A Master Plan, Sanders expands a simplistic Love Supreme-esque bass riff into a half-hour-long spiritual exploration that ebbs and flows between groovy relaxation and thunderous chaos. Just as Sanders was given opportunities to shine by Sun Ra and John Coltrane, he willfully cedes the spotlight to flautist James Spaulding and pioneering jazz French hornist Julius Watkins, who in turn give the piece a fresh and distinctive character. On another song, the 37-minute epic Black Unity, Sanders follows a similar formula but achieves a totally different result thanks to the piece’s wild trumpet solos and powerful sustained organ tones.

Whether Sanders was adhering to his proven style of long jams or venturing beyond his comfort zone, he could simply do no wrong during his 1970s heyday and always delivered a captivating experience with his albums. Unfortunately, the rest of the world couldn’t keep up with him: In the 1980s, the rise of jazz traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis created a schism in jazz between new and old that fundamentally jeopardized the viability of Sanders’s spiritual jazz that had always been positioned comfortably in the gray area between the two. Sanders adapted, pivoting to recording jazz standards like 1991’s Welcome to Love, but he never recaptured the magic he once had, and in a 2003 interview revealed that labels had stopped approaching him.

Maybe that, then, explains the furious power behind his playing on Promises; as Sanders progresses from playful vocalizations to a fiery sax solo in the fourth and fifth movements, you can feel the urgency of someone who’s waited fifty years for the chance to be heard and knows he might not get another. He backs out of the texture in the sixth movement, but the LSO builds off his energy with their huge orchestral swells, eventually relenting to let Sanders take the reins for a seventh movement that showcases his delicacy. At times, Sanders blows so softly his saxophone doesn’t even release a note, but out of nowhere, at the movement’s end, Sanders blasts off with his most explosive moment on the album and one of the greatest moments in his career.

It’s also the final moment of Pharoah Sanders’s career. On September 24, 2022, Sanders passed away at the age of 81. He doesn’t return in the last two movements. “Movement 7” is the culmination of Sanders’s spiritual journey through music.

In the final two movements, the Promises triumvirate of Sanders, Shepherd and the LSO fully disintegrates. The funerary eighth movement features weighty, monstrous organ chords by Shepherd, who gives the LSO no chance to be heard even if they tried, while the ninth movement features only the LSO, who shockingly abandon the piece’s main motif before fading out on an eerie, dissonant chord. But between the piece’s two heaviest movements lies its most beautiful moment: One minute of absolute silence, a silence which sadly reflects a world now without Pharoah Sanders, but a silence in which the full power of Promises can be realized.

Daily Arts Writer Jack Moeser can be reached at