Both recordings landed in springtime, when epidemiologists were squinting at lights at the ends of tunnels. “Promises,” a collaboration between the storied American saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and British producer Floating Points, with the London Symphony Orchestra, sounded handsome, hospitable and even optimistic when it arrived in late March. A few weeks later came “Descension (Out of Our Constrictions),” a live album from the Chicago group Natural Information Society and the tenacious British saxophonist Evan Parker that felt responsive, propulsive and alive. Both albums contain a single composition — long-form statements of and about the human breath.
As for the older humans on each record, they’re different. Sanders is 80, musically heroic, but fragile. Parker is 77, musically collegial, but a covid-19 denier. In an interview published in April, he described the pandemic as “a sham” designed to “harvest DNA and sell vaccines.” Just like that, his remarks threatened to make his deeply empathetic new music make no sense at all.
At first, the Pharoah-FloPo album made almost too much sense. After decades of boisterous questing, here was John Coltrane’s great acolyte blowing polite phrases over a music-boxy motif produced by a cool British soundscaper (real name: Sam Shepherd) more than 40 years the saxophonist’s junior. That’s exactly the kind of transgenerational, transgenre, transatlantic, odd-couple feel-good story that casual listeners love before they’ve heard a note.
And unlike Sanders’s freakiest freak-outs, this music wasn’t making big demands, so if you heard its unblinking prettiness running parallel to the very-niceness of the circumstances under which it was created, “Promises” may have sounded like a failure to recognize the gnarliness of the moment. Pleasantries are suspect when we’re in pain.
But if you kept listening through the hot months, you may have noticed Sanders quietly reorganizing his sound-idea, streamlining his extravagant gestures into their most essential contours, getting the house in order. Ever lay eyes on those clean, candid paintings that abstract-expressionist wildman Willem de Kooning made in the 1980s?
This music is kind of like that. Give it enough time and it sounds knowing, resolved and at peace — but because this pandemic has already taken so many great jazz minds from us, it’s impossible not to hear it as fragile, too. Every note that Sanders floats out of his horn is something you’ll wish you could catch in two hands and protect.
As for the notes Sanders sings, they appear roughly a dozen minutes into the album, his voice quietly fluttering and babbling at first, then yawning melody from the back of the throat. It only lasts for a blink, but what’s he up to? Talking to himself? Dictating instructions to his saxophone? And is that the same thing? Sanders has spent his life transposing heavy human thought into gusting human breath, but hearing him exteriorize a few casual brain waves this intimately might be what finally blows you clean out of your life.
Meantime, this new album that Parker has made with Natural Information Society sounds like life, as if the band’s signature groove might be a growing, changing, living, breathing thing. Recorded at a 2019 concert in London, everything about it feels brisk and circular, moving quickly, but changing slowly, which makes time feel thin and thick all at once — an awful way to feel in a global pandemic but a very exciting way to feel inside a song.
Parker is an incredible fit here. Long celebrated as an eminence of improvisational music, he plays his soprano saxophone using circular breathing techniques, inhaling and exhaling simultaneously, making the notes go nonstop for minutes on end. It’s inherently dazzling, but Parker still knows how to listen. Here, with Natural Information Society — Joshua Abrams on guimbri, Lisa Alvarado on harmonium, Mikel Patrick Avery on drums, Jason Stein on bass clarinet — he’s always waiting for the band to change the shape of the rhythm, either chasing it up into the sky, or surrounding it with spills of melody that feel like a wide embrace.
So how could someone this attentive on the bandstand, this empathetic in song, this worldly in his playing come to the conclusion that a decimating global pandemic isn’t real? It baffles and burns.
Also, it should be noted that the members of Natural Information Society don’t appear to share Parker’s ideas. (The album’s liner notes contextualize the human breath differently, noting how it was denied to George Floyd and countless other Black victims of police violence in America.) It’ll be a shame if Parker’s denialism ultimately fouls this band’s great art.
Which brings us all the way back to that unsolvable riddle about separating art from artists, whether it can or should be done, and if so, how. Parker flips the quandary inside-out, too. His playing on this album — magnificent, magnanimous — is enough to make us wonder if certain artists know how to separate their art from themselves.
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