One of the year’s most memorable melodies consists of a seven-note refrain repeated, with slight variation, for more than three quarters of an hour. Sam Shepherd’s keyboard part from Promises—a full-length collaboration between the 35-year-old British musician better known as Floating Points, the 81-year-old American jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra—is soft and silvery. With an air of unquenchable mystery, it forms the frame for Sanders’ eloquent horn lead. The unobtrusive figure is the opposite of showy, and yet it frequently slips unbidden into my thoughts—when I’m washing dishes, say, or showering, or driving in silence—and germinates there, like a seed cracking open.
Promises is an unusual piece of work: a cross-generational hybrid of lyrical jazz and electroacoustic abstraction, with a touch of classical orchestration thrown in. Shepherd and Sanders come from considerably different backgrounds, but there are clear commonalities in their approaches. Floating Points’ earliest work was devoted to groove-heavy dance beats, but since his 2015 album Elaenia, Shepherd has increasingly focused on the expressive dimension of sound-sculpting. Sanders, spiritual kin to John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, has spent decades exploring the nuances of tone: In just the first minute or so of “Astral Traveling,” from 1971’s Thembi, he proves that a held note can be as transporting as the most dazzling cadenza. What unites the two musicians on Promises is a shared interest in the ways that timbre and texture are just as crucial as melody, harmony, and even rhythm—that is, a mutual fascination with the properties of sound itself.
Usually when we talk about the kind of repetition and sonic detail that are central to Promises, we talk about minimalism. But in the case of Shepherd and Sanders’ meditative album, untethered from any sort of percussive anchor, a different genre seems more germane: ambient. Promises may have been the most high-profile ambient jazz album of 2021, but it was hardly the only one. The fusion of the two styles has been gathering steam over the last few years, culminating in a bounty of recent recordings in which music born of the American jazz tradition took on a particularly ethereal and otherworldly air. It’s a sound that feels particularly timely, given the enforced pause we’ve been forced to endure for nearly two years now, as well as the abiding feeling of strangeness that hangs over so much of modern life. But its roots run deeper—and its artistic possibilities stretch further—than the current predicament.
Much like jazz, ambient can be a vague and frustratingly open-ended term that inspires plenty of knee-jerk associations—from ’90s chill-out rooms to new-age elevator music. Brian Eno, who popularized the concept on a series of albums in the ’70s and ’80s, famously said that ambient music should be “as ignorable as it is interesting”—a potentially provocative assessment that also doomed the style, in the eyes of its detractors, as a lesser category of music, something closer to interior design than actual composition. Given the rise of mood-based streaming playlists (and the resultant rise of music created expressly for mood-based streaming playlists), there’s no shortage of aural wallpaper these days. But Promises is something different: an attempt to combine the expressive language of jazz with the atmospheric quality of ambient music, to introspective and enveloping effect.
If Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders represent the meeting of the 20th-century avant-garde with the 21st-century electronic underground, those two traditions come together in 25-year-old harpist, composer, and synth obsessive Nala Sinephro. Her debut album, Space 1.8, collects some of the leading lights of the contemporary London jazz scene—including saxophonists Nubya Garcia, James Mollison, and Ahnansé, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, and drummer Eddie Hick, of Sons of Kemet—but it seldom sounds like anything as straightforward as a group of musicians jamming together in real time.