The Points Between
By Emily VanKoughnettSeptember 22, 2023
Promises, one of the most highly acclaimed jazz albums in recent years, is a meditative and minimalist journey. Released in 2021, it’s a collaboration between the British composer Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) and the legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. It was Sanders’s final work, as he died at 80 years old at his home in Los Angeles last September. In honor of his life and work, the Los Angeles Studio Orchestra and a hand-picked lineup played the album live, in full, for the first time.
Arriving at the Bowl is always the trick, because of the way it forces thousands of Angelenos to funnel up one road like ants on a hill, but the people next to me in line delight at the two bottles of wine and a greasy bag of hamburgers they manage to smuggle into our BYOB Disney-like utopia in the Hollywood Hills. I’ve brought Thai food and a can of wine I stole from the office fridge. We have all finally arrived.
We find our way to our seats, taking the escalator that runs through the trees over the Toyota-branded food court. The Sun Ra Arkestra is on stage, all glammed out in sparkling kaftans dotted with tiny spaceship pins ready to take us to the Afrofuturistic milky way. Started in the 1950s by Sun Ra himself, the band has been led by Marshall Allen for the past 30 years. Beyond the dazzling effect of their interplanetary grooves, it is clear they are a well-oiled machine, even holding it together to let Allen flip and dance his way into a costume change.
And then it’s time. The orchestra files out to their seats, followed by the group of stars that Sanders and Shepherd chose before his death, which includes saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and musicians Caribou and Four Tet, among others.
The album lists each song as a movement, but in the live performance there was no telling where one began or ended. Conducted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, the musicians moved with precision, restraint, and patience. Promises is a delicate listen, and performed live, the details glimmer and come to the forefront. From the harpsichord to the ondes Martenot (the original theremin) to the tenor saxophone, every motion is focused and intentional. And as Atwood-Ferguson guides the musicians through this gentle work, he also guides the crowd to the sense of reverence that Promises demands.
Pharoah Sanders said that he hadn’t been listening to much music in the years leading up to the creation of the album. Instead, he was listening to the sound of airplanes taking off, or to the sound of ocean waves. And so in the quieter movements and the still moments in-between, I listen to the cicadas in the trees, or to the girl crying behind me who was just so mad at her boyfriend, or to a different boy behind me crying because he is just so moved. And then just like that, I find myself pulled back in, smiling at the sound of the saxophone so full of reverb that I thought it was a guitar. Or at the thrum of the organ as three hands descend on the keys.
Like with a difficult book, the first pass was a delight, but only with time would Promises’ secrets be unveiled.
Photo from contributor.
LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.
Emily VanKoughnett is the public programs and engagement manager at Los Angeles Review of Books. Her work can be found in The Portland Mercury, The September Issues, She Shreds, and her self-produced quaranzine (quarantine + zine) Notes from Inside the House.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.