That’s how I was into Mingus – how can you resist to the “Haitian Fight Song” bassline? – as an example. Then there were newspapers like “Il Manifesto” that, thanks to the long articles on a Saturday insert dedicated to culture, you would read extensive analysis of every music style, from calypso to soundtracks, and run into an article about John Zorn and his filecard compositions, just to give you a help in understanding how I was meeting new music prior to the internet era.
But when I started listening to Coltrane, I was only trusting his name and my curiosity, and so I bought my copy of “A Love Supreme” happy to learn something new. But at the first listenings – that was my first jazz album – something strange happened to me: my head was simply going somewhere else. I was simply not used to improvisation, so my brain was refusing it. But, you know, practice makes perfect.
So in a few time I was hooked by a lot of more or less traditional jazz, like Davis, Holiday, Rollins, Ellington. I also bought me some books, like “Jazz” by Arrigo Polillo, a classic reading in my native language. And then I started to see my first concerts. The very first one was a Masada quartet featuring Zorn, Dave Douglas, Joey Baron and Greg Cohen. For free. I was really happy. Then, after quite some months, I left Milano and the university for the suburbs and my parents.
But I kept on listening to music. And so it came 2001, the year the Trane’s album “Olatunji Concert” was released. I remember that at first I was happy about this record because, even if poorly recorded and produced, it was really my idea of music put on a CD. Pure sound, sometimes pure noise with fragments and echoes of melodies coming from God knows were. And then it happened something I would call an ‘agnition’.
I was on a trip with friends, a psychoanalist – not my therapist, at the time I was followed by a younger woman – and other people. We had to join a panel discussion, or something similar. This pal, the therapist, was interested in what I was listening to, so he asked me to put some music into the car stereo. I had some records with me, not by chance, and my choice was the “Olatunji” album. I thought it would be funny, to see the reactions of my friends. But what I didn’t know at that time was MY reaction. Something really unexspected.
While listening to the melody of Coltrane and its development on “Ogunde”, and then the harsh screams of Pharoah Sanders, I felt something inside of me, as if something were collapsing and crumbling. Obviously there was nothing in me really happening, this is only a metaphor for a feeling. But I remember clearly that sensation of something falling apart in me, and I would use, back in those days, to describe this feeling I kept for myself, the German word ‘spaltung’.
‘Spaltung’ (in English: ‘split’, or ‘slit’) is a word used by Jacques Lacan, the self-promoted renovator of psychoanalisis, to identify the ontological division of the self between a talking being and a thinking being, meaning that you’ll never be able to describe with words your true inner feelings, and this scar is the first trauma of every human being. Since I’m not Slavoj Zizek, I won’t bore you with such concepts moreover, but those were the things that came to my mind in those times.
I never had such emotions again, but I remember that my basic idea was, if I’m able to feel something I’ll never be able to trasmit, and if this is something I have to take care of, something I have to be responsible for, in a way this is, as far as myself, the same as a good improvisor does while he creates his own language and music: something he is responsible for, even if few people understand him. If Arto Lindsay takes his risks in scratching his guitar, why do I have not to be serious about my own life?
Since 2004 until 2007 there was also a period where I simply could not listen to free jazz and improvised music. Every time I was trying to spin a record by Don Cherry, Peter Brotzmann, or Gato Barbieri, I was having horrible feelings. I had never been aware of another human being with such sensations as me, but in a way I feel now that at that time I wasn’t free as a person, and so I was not able to listen to such a free music.
If you are readers to my blog, now you know that everything is all right. I mean, I can listen to music so carefully that I can write about it. So, it’s just fine. But when I knew that Pharoah Sanders was working to a new album in London, and then when finally I was able to listen to that record a month ago, the one I’m reviewing for you now, I thought back to those events of my life. Obviously I was curious about how such a record would sound, and I was pleasantly surprised in listening to it this spring.
All things started in 2015. At that era, Pharoah Sanders listened by chance to “Elaenia”, a record made by Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points. Curiously enough, he was also in a car, but with a guy from a record label, and not a psychoanalist, who gave him the hereabove mentioned album. Sanders and Shepherd started meeting each other. Maybe they were going for a visit into the British Museum to see ancient Egypt’s statues. Or maybe they were talking about music together.
Fist and most important, this record sees harpsichord piano, other electronic instruments and the saxophone on the foreground. “Movement 1” sees Shepherd depicting the few notes that, repeatedly, will constitute the skeleton of the entire composition. After quite a while, it’s Sanders turn to improvise a melody that will give you the feeling of being back in the era where Coltrane was playing with the likes of singer Johnny Hartman: his gentle side’s ghost is now between us.
Strings come near just to underline the ecstatic atmosphere with a series of prolonged statements. They dominate “Movement 2” a little bit more, even if the scene is taken by Sanders and his melancholic melody. Some electronic sounds embellish the music, as it happens in some of Bjork albums throughout “Movement 3”. “Movement 4” begins with Sanders voice, whose purpose is to give life to a more human feeling than electronic sounds, just before another tenor solo.
Some chimes, or sounds that imitates them, enrich the solo, then some piano and electronic melodies in place of the repetitive pattern we hear from the beginning come to give strenght to Sanders statements. Gentle electric sounds succeed each other on “Movement 5”, while the saxophone try to give life to a music that is reminiscent of all the history of free jazz but thin as a gentle breeze; and then, here we are again with the harpsicord pattern.
“Movement 6” is murmured through tenor, clavier and a cello solo. What’s peculiar in this music is that you don’t have a simple add of instruments, the one on the other. Every note is brushed with the right space to separate it from the others. Then the orchestra underlines the cello’s melody gaining the foreground. The impression anyway is not that of an alternating of full, rounded sounds and more sparse notes, a well known dynamic in jazz music, but that of different feelings cohexisting together in the heart of the listener.
Crescendo of last part of the movement leaves space to a new repetition of the now well known hapsichord notes at the beginning of “Movement 7”, even if soon we hear a new melody on saxophone. Now silence is almost more important than music, or, better said, it is from silence that the music can take his life. The entire orchestra also is aware of this, and so it’s more cautious in participating to this creation.
More harpsichord little figures go around Sanders’ tenor, taking soon his place in conducing the music. An ecstatic melancholy is, anyway, the predominant feeling of this part of the symphony. We hear a more decise turn on minimalism. More and more rapid figures intertwines, until a new saxophone assertion, more decise than the previous ones. Even the coexisting of analogic and electronic sounds isn’t creating a contrast, also thanks to the equipment Mr Shepherd chose for the recording.
Piano, Harpsichord, Celesta, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, Oberheim 4 voice & OB-Xa, Solina String Ensemble, Therevox ET-4.3, EMS Synthi, ARP 2600 and Buchla 200e are the instruments that are mixed together with the saxophone and the orchestra. “Movement 8” seems to come from a session of 1970s rock music, even if the notes we learned to appreciate are constantly present, at least until new electronic sounds appear jumping into a silence every now and then, leaving you with the feeling of constantly reemerging from a dream.
Finally, a subtle organ drone drive us until “Movement 9”, where, after some silence, we can appreciate the orchestra’s dramatic but atonal crescendo until the end. An album for people who want to undestand how much the shifting from one feeling to the other or the compresence of different feelings can be a form of spiritual awakening – because art is always a form of spiritual awakening – “Promises” is exactly as its title wants to suggest.
For those of you who are not completely aware of the history of avant garde jazz, Farrel “Pharoah” Sanders – his nickname is the gift of another big soul, the mythological Sun Ra who hosted him in his Arkestra at the beginning of his career – is one of the very first musicians to experiment with free form and the decise insertion of noise elements taken from R&B into his sound and vision, as many other did at that time, from John Coltrane to Albert Ayler.
Recluted by Coltrane himself in his second small group after the one with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones disbanded, and even prior in seminal records like “Ascension” and “Meditations”, Sanders stayed with Trane until his death in 1967, following then his path with new, different ensembles, and experimenting with different types of music. This album is a way to reconcile past and present, since Sanders style evokes that of his soul brother and maybe, given Coltrane’s curiosity for every music style, it is not far from the truth to think that if he would have lived longer, maybe he would have experimente with such sounds.