Discography: My Name Is Albert Ayler
Spirits (aka Witches & Devils)
Jazz Monthly (January, 1966) - UK
Norman Howard (tpt); Albert Ayler (ten); Henry Grimes (bs); Sonny Murray (d)
New York City—February 24, 1964
Spirits : : Saints
Earle Henderson (bs) replaces Grimes same date
Grimes added same date
Witches and devils
Transatlantic TRA-130 (35/-)
HERE’S ANOTHER glimpse into the remarkable world of Albert Ayler, and this new opportunity to study his work gives us some new perspectives and introduces to us several new facets of his work. This album was recorded some four months earlier than Spiritual unity, and with Ayler using a quartet here the album has a different shape, a different feeling, even though it remains recognisably the work of the same mind. The big surprise here is Witches and devils, the first time Ayler has broken away from his race-track tempos; here he has produced an out-of-tempo dirge, with a simple theme full of long notes that becomes extremely affecting on repeated hearings. The other tracks are more in keeping with what we already know about Ayler, with fast, skittering tempos and brief, folky themes. Spirits, incidentally, is a different theme to the Spirits on ESP, though Holy, holy has the theme of Ghosts interpolated into the middle of the performance. The different bassists don’t seem to have affected the overall style of the group very much; neither Grimes nor Henderson can quite match Gary Peacock in Ayler’s music, but they do very well, and provide some remarkable moments in their duet on Witches and devils. Sonny Murray for once is adequately recorded on this album, and his complex style shows up very well here. Norman Howard is a trumpeter from Cleveland, Ayler’s home town; he worked with Ayler there and apparently was flown in specially for this recording. He seems to be trying to create a parallel idiom to Ayler’s, and his style will provide some headaches for those brought up on normal jazz trumpet techniques. At fast tempos he produces a spluttering, jerky line in which, as in Ayler’s own work, clarity of articulation and control of pitching and vibrato are entirely dispensable. On Witches and devils he matches Ayler remarkably well, the two of them producing a sound astonishingly like that of a New Orleans brass band; the control he shows in his work here, though always of a somewhat non-academic character, should be enough to prove that he’s no faker. He’s going his own way to his own ends, and he’s not yet entirely master of his style, but for all that he’s a good musician, and I think an honest one. The same, of course, can be said for Ayler; there is nothing here that quite matches the centrifugal violence of the second Ghosts on ESP, perhaps because the quartet line-up doesn’t lend itself quite so much to such single- mindedness, but there’s plenty of evidence of his ability to sustain his work at a high level of invention at all times. Altogether, this is an excellent album, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to everyone interested in the various new waves around at the moment. Possibly also, starting with Witches and devils, with its associations with previous forms in jazz, and working out from there, other listeners who have so far not concerned themselves with the work of these young musicians will find things to interest and challenge them. It’s well worth a try.
Jazz Journal (January (or Feb.), 1966.) - UK
Spirits; Witches And Devils (18½ min)—Holy Holy; Saints (17 min)
(Transatlantic TRA 130 29s. 9d.)
This is not the first work of Albert Ayler I’ve heard, nor will it be the last, and it has had plenty of my attention.
This is a harsh, feverish, tense and bitter record; whether it has any importance remains to be seen. When I compare it with Coleman’s ‘Change Of The Century’ the difference is that ‘Change’ was essentially vocal jazz in instrumental form, or at least a revision of jazz in human terms; it also drove like mad, as it still does.
Ayler does not swing, and has little or no recognisable human appeal. To say that his music provides sound-effects for a psychological crisis may appear a cheap comment, but it is not at all unreasonable; it may even be construed as a compliment.
In current phraseology, Albert Ayler strikes one as an anti-tenor player, deriding the instrument’s essentials and caricaturing its normal handling. But of course Sonny Rollins does the same sometimes—the important difference being that he has first proved his wholly orthodox ability before taking off for a strange destination. In this case, I need only quote the sleevenote: ‘The timbre of his horn is so broad and gritty it sometimes sounds like an electronic foghorn.’
Spirits starts with a Kerry Dancers type phrase, reminiscent of Ornette’s Ramblin’ but has nowhere like the swing and freedom of that. Witches made me think of a curious tuneless burlesque of Didn’t He Ramble with graveyard effects; extremely odd drumming, at times like a reiterated dry cough. Holy is like Flight Of The Bumblebee played rather slowly by an oriental group, dominated by a very menacing whinny. Saints appears almost sentimental, sounds repulsive, and is something like a virtuoso piece for a mad gypsy violinist.
I cannot recommend this record to anyone, but if for any reason this school of music is going to achieve any impact we have some sort of obligation to give it a hearing.
Norman Howard (tpt); Albert Ayler (ten); Henry Grimes (bs); Sonny Murray (d). (Earle Henderson (bs) added for ‘Witches’ and ‘Holy’).
Jazz Magazine (December, 1972) - France
Down Beat (11 March, 1976 - p.29) - USA
WITCHES AND DEVILS—Arista 1018. Witches And Devils, Spirits, Holy Holy, Saints.
Personnel: Ayler, tenor sax; Henry Grimes, bass (tracks 1, 2, and 4); Earle Henderson, bass (tracks 1 and 3); Norman Howard, trumpet; Sonny Murray, drums.
This 1964 date represents Ayler’s first effort with an ensemble that was actually able to match his improvisational nuances. His post-Coleman sense of free form-frenzied melancholia, had, but for a few chance gigs with Cecil Taylor, been hampered by several dates with pedestrian musicians. The landmark ESP days lay ahead of him, but on Witches And Devils the roots of Ayler’s most evocative phase were firmly planted.
Spurred on by the deft rhythmic sense of his sidemen, Ayler sparkles. The title cut, a delicious duet between Grimes and Henderson, finds a talkative bow conversing with a chattering plucked bass, spurred on by Murray’s alternate drum rolls. Yet the speaker of the house is Ayler, suffixing trumpeter Howard’s blues dirge bleats with a mournful statement of his own.
At first listen, Ayler’s tuneful aspects are most often dressed in the dynamics of contrapuntal interchange between himself and Howard. True, snippets at the preface and coda of Spirits provide our only viable exposure to standardized melody, yet descending clusters of bartered notes between trumpet and sax on Saints show Albert at his best.
In addition to the scalar subtleties, a shadowy sense of Ayler’s highly personal mystique occasionally surfaces, especially on Holy, Holy, with a haunting graveyard moan meshing with Sonny Murray’s splashes to create a danse macabre.
A vinyl landmark, Witches And Devils is a definitive slice of Ayler in the springtime of his turbulent and short career.
Coda (No. 152, December 1976 - pp.20-21) - Canada
Witches & Devils
Arista-Freedom AF 108
ESP-Disk ESP 3030
Now, six years after his mysterious death, Albert Ayler remains as much an enigma as he was during his lifetime. He appeared seemingly out of nowhere (actually Cleveland, Little Walter’s Blues Band, and the US Army) to touch bases with Cecil Taylor in Scandinavia in 1962. There he made the first recordings of his unique aesthetic; but retrospectively the pairing of Ayler with such as Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen seems even more absurd than it must have the first time around. When he returned to New York in 1963, his only known musical credentials were an already-legendary iconoclasm and Cecil Taylor’s advocacy. His motivations were never clarified, although spirituality was the overt concern of most of his music; but those of us who trusted in that at the time were far too confused by the final Impulse period of recordings progressively more and more polished of progressively less and less independence or substance. (Translate as “sell out”.) But in early 1964, when he recorded “Witches and Devils”, he was still an unknown quantity, never having been afforded the opportunity to record the music he wanted in settings of his choice.
Recorded for Debut in New York City in February 1964, “Witches and Devils” was the first date for Ayler the leader over which he had full control. This meant not only that he could choose his most sympathetic cohorts, but that he was free to concentrate on his spiritual preoccupations and the themes he drew from them rather than randomly include errant “standards” and blues as before. For this, the finest of all his studio works, Ayler was joined by two hometown players (trumpeter Norman Howard and bassist Earle Henderson) and two friends from the Taylor ensemble (Henry Grimes and drummer Sunny Murray). But for such a large group, and especially compared with the constant barrage of his later quintets, the textures of this one are amazingly diverse, and frequently have a sparse, almost desolate quality. This was a “free” ensemble, in which, although collective improvisation was not yet a major concern, each instrument had an independent and simultaneous melodic role to perform. The textural drones of his later years were not yet in evidence. Not yet having learned the uses of musical power/violence through brother Don, Ayler is free to concentrate the relaxation in his lines. The tension that built emotional ambiguity was to come later. Here is the tenorist’s conception at its purest - the reconstruction of melody through the elasticizing of parallel layers of fragments, a huge tone drawn from a relaxed embouchure applied to a hard reed (a technique almost impossible for the adept but undevoted performer), and a compositional optimism that was naive almost to the point of saccharine. The otherwise-unrecorded Howard showed much the same approach to linear discontinuity as a formal method for improvisation, but in a far less lyrical fashion. He was also a great believer in the exploitation of instrumental tonal resources in his solos; his final passages in Spirits anticipate Lester Bowie by a good two years.
But one of the great virtues of the open freedom of this quintet is that it allows creation and hearing on several levels. Agreed, that a fundamental justification for having two bassists in music of this genre is the great breadth of harmonic feed it allows the front-line soloists. But the bassists are no less prominent in the sound of the music, and their intricate pizzicato interplay is at least as important as Murray’s non-repetitive drumming in establishing the proper rhythmic setting for the horns. Murray is the other really dominant player on “Witches and Devils”, one whose approach to his kit was brilliantly new - and not just a matter of avoiding the cliche in playing time. Rather, Murray uses the expected timbral qualities of his kit in personal combinations to establish a tonal atmosphere for the music. He was in no sense a timekeeper.
Ayler’s music from then on came together quickly, and by June of the same year he had a working trio together with Murray and bassist Gary Peacock. “Prophecy”, a previously-lost tape by the trio from a Cellar Cafe, New York job in mid-June, precedes the “Spiritual Unity” session that finally established the tenorist and his trio as powers to be reckoned with by one month. If “Prophecy” is the valid indicator it seems, he was peaking even then.
The trio setting was the vanishing dimension for Ayler’s music - the smallest number of counterfoils effectively to set him off, and simultaneously the largest group of voices to fit his music without blocking his own drive. “Prophecy” is a superior group of performances to “Spiritual Unity” only because of the presence of a responsive audience. The compositions overlap almost totally between the two discs (with the exception of the previously unheard title composition of “Prophecy”), but Ayler and especially the otherwise-reticent Peacock were stimulated immensely by ears. On earlier Ayler recordings, each performance was assigned to a different expressive problem of composition or instrument; the orthodoxy of previous settings limited the number of directions in which Ayler could move at once. In the trio a maximum of sympathy in countermotion was joined to a minimum of restriction, leaving the tenorist free to move his lines in several directions at once. This in fact is the course of development of his solos, moving not only linearly and rhythmically but timbrally, achieving in the two trio albums the greatest critical momentum of any of his work. Gary Peacock is a paradox - at once aggressively hornlike - more so than any other bassist of his era - and self-effacing. If his command of his instrument is notable, his imagination and ability to meet it are even more so. Murray, again, is a timbral rather than metric feed to the tenor, while the tonal structure of the music frees Peacock from harmonic tasks to concentrate on tonal and rhythmic aspects of his art.
There is some confusion with the titling of Ayler’s compositions in these and the “Spiritual Unity” sessions. For unknown reasons, Ghosts’ first and second variations on both trio discs are different compositions - the first the same piece later known as “Ghosts”, the second identical with Spirits on both the “Witches and Devils” and “Prophecy” albums. Holy, Holy on the quintet date became The Wizard with trio.
Ayler’s music today is in the absurd but lamentably common situation of a powerful creation whose potentials were stunted by marketplace pressures and finally closed by an early death. It was uniquely strong and beautiful - perhaps too much so. Today it lives only in the minds of a small coterie of listeners who were there to know his truth, not in the minds and hands of this year’s creators. Perhaps, someday, people will again hear him; it would be ridiculous for his wealth of beauty to remain impactless and void. All recordings by Ayler remain important. “Witches and Devils” and “Prophecy” happen to be the most essential of these unique documents.
- Barry Tepperman
Black Music (1978)
Ayler’s Power In The Darkness
ALBERT AYLER: ‘Witches And Devils’.
Witches And Devils / Spirits / Holy Holy / Saints. (Freedom FLP 41018)
In the end is the beginning . . . This, dear hearts, was the album (in its original version as ‘Spirits’) that REALLY turned me on to “jazz” — I didn’t know it was called the new thing or new jazz or free jazz or even the avant garde then. I didn’t know much of anything except that this was the most amazing, nerve-tingling, scary, powerful, electrifying music I had ever heard. It turned my head around completely. This album, in fact, was the beginning of the road that led me to where I am now (awaiting redundancy payment). And it still has the same primal force as it did over a decade ago. It isn’t Ayler’s best album but it was the first where he was matched with comparable musicians. Notably Sonny Murray. (The things you take for granted in ignorance — it never occurred to me to think, when I first heard this, that Murray was a free drummer, that he was a different drummer. What he was doing — his waves and crashing breakers of percussion — fitted perfectly.) This album was the first real Ayler recording with the musical areas he would continue to explore in his most creative period. Like the eerie, funereal title track, with Ayler’s unearthly ectoplasmic tone and wide, passionate vibrato. (And inspired use of two bassists — Henry Grimes and Earle Henderson, in both combination and contrast of arco/plucked). “Spirits” with its uptempo Rollinsish theme (again in “Holy, Holy”) — and reminding of the Rollins in Ayler — demonstrates Ayler’s preference for simple, often catchy (when uptempo) themes, launching pads for impassioned, fluid solos, always stretching, reaching into the upper registers and harmonics — the energy and contours of streaks of lightning across the sky. Trumpeter Norman Howard with his bright, scudding, warbling runs wasn’t the best partner Ayler had but a certainly very much more than adequate foil. Ayler took jazz back to its (pre-European influence) roots while simultaneously reaching beyond. His almost primeval spirituality creates some of the most soulful music ever heard. It’s spooky, it’s chilling — his tone alone sends shivers up the spine — but it’s incredibly beautiful. Ayler uncovers depths in the listener, stripping away the layers down to the core, penetrating to something far, far beyond mere listening involvement. As he said: “Our music is a long way from entertainment music.” Too right. Play it in the dark and it will affect you like nothing else ever.
Swing Low Sweet Spiritual (aka Goin’ Home)
The Boston Phoenix (11 January 1983) - USA
Swing Low on High
Albert Ayler resurrected
by Bob Blumenthal
“The ’60s were a period of musical upheaval, but time has separated the true innovators from the charlatans.” Surely, you’ve heard that one before. It seems that jazz didn’t have charlatans until Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor gave them license. Thank goodness their ranks are thinning. Time has made it harder to dismiss Coleman and Taylor, and Coltrane was always an innovator—after all, he could swing and play the blues.
For many, tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler is still the head mountebank of the avant-garde. His crooning, transmogrified tones, his stubbornly simple, even corny “folk” tunes, his thoroughgoing rejection of the beat and the chorus structure, his preoccupation with peace and love in song titles and interviews (so at odds with the sound of his music), and his sudden shift in the late ’60s to commercial formats all make Ayler an easy target. Swing Low Sweet Spiritual (Osmosis), the third addition to the Ayler discography to appear in the past 18 months, will give the doubters another opportunity to gloat. As one who will defend Ayler’s profound and essential contribution to free music, even I must admit to being disappointed with what should have been a made-to-order recital.
In early 1964, on the date of his first great recording session (reissued as Witches & Devils on Arista-Freedom but now out of print), Ayler also taped six spirituals and quasi- spirituals with a quartet completed by Call Cobbs on piano, Henry Grimes on bass, and Sunny Murray on drums. Afro-American religious songs have been explored often by jazz musicians (James Moody cut a stirring “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in 1955), but hardly so exclusively. And in 1979, many listeners were stunned not only by Archie Shepp’s sensitive playing on Goin’ Home (SteepleChase), but also by the record’s gospel program. Given Ayler’s proclivities for melodies that suggest communal prayer songs, and given his cosmic outlook, Swing Low Sweet Spiritual is both in character and potentially more acceptable to listeners grounded in musical verities.
The results are fascinating, as much for what isn’t there as for what is, but only partially satisfying. A rolling gospel tempo is established for “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and Ayler, in a rare soprano-sax solo, serves up bluesy, undulating lines that would fit comfortably in a traditional New Orleans ensemble. Elsewhere the tempo is rubato, the mood is dirge-like in the manner of Ayler’s slow originals, and the primary concern is with melody statement. Cobbs, far more cogent than in the rollercoaster harpsichord accompaniment he would later provide Ayler, plays some reflective introductory choruses, and Grimes fills out the saxophone statements with patches of stately abstraction; Ayler, however, dispenses with variations almost totally, preferring instead to bring his massive, vibrato-laden tone to bear on the familiar themes.
Such conservatism highlights one of the most personal and overpowering tones in jazz. The spreading low notes and veering squeals, the abrupt and extreme shifts in register and dynamics, the mammoth breath control and unrelieved intensity all come together here and receive reinforcement from the material. If Ayler has always suggested a Wailing Wall supplicant in a fit of trance-like frenzy, the music offers focus and foundation for his lamentations, a recognizable context for talking in tongues. Without dampening his fervor, these spirituals locate it historically, making it sound anything but contrived. In terms of both Ayler’s musical and extra-musical pronouncements, these tracks are a testament to his conviction.
They may not be much more, however. Once past the initial theme statement, there is little of the nuance or invention of Goin’ Home, little of the cataclysmic rush of the best Ayler. Shepp, the other great post-Coltrane saxophonist of the ’60s, does so much more with “Deep River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Goin’ Home,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” because his embellishments are not merely textural. This is surprising, since Shepp is a radical by intellectual choice, a model of willed deviation. Yet he sounds both comfortable with and inspired by the spirituals, whereas Ayler, a far less self-conscious and analytical player, doesn’t allow himself the leeway he takes with his own compositions. Perhaps the material, including two takes of “Old Man River,” not exactly indigenous black music but fitting nonetheless, was too rich (Ayler’s musical career began at age 10, when he played funerals in a band with his father). Something inhibited his use of the accompanists, for Cobbs and Grimes embellish in spurts, at a remove from Ayler’s theme statements, and Murray’s contribution is minimal. This leaves Ayler and the melodies, and however promising the pairing of musician and repertoire may seem, it isn’t enough.
What’s lacking is the enveloping collective engagement that Ayler’s bands had perfected by the end of 1964, and which they were to maintain until Ayler’s rock deviation of 1968. Swing Low Sweet Spiritual implies what other recently unearthed Ayler performances make explicit: that his was a genius that depended upon, as much as it inspired, a similar abandon in his accompanists. This point is made best on Osmosis’s previous release, The Hilversum Session, which was taken from a radio broadcast at the end of a 1964 European tour by the definitive Ayler quartet, with Don Cherry on trumpet, Gary Peacock on bass, and Murray’s drums. The band rails and soars, as it had two months earlier on Ghosts (reissued by Arista-Freedom as Vibrations, now deleted) and two months before that (minus Cherry) on Spiritual Unity (ESP/Base). Here we confront all three hallmarks of Ayler’s style: tonal distortion, melodic naiveté, and tumultuous group improvisation; and the music is magnificent.
I am particularly struck by the sonic barrage Peacock and Murray unleash in tandem with Ayler, since this interaction (with each player tugging and pulling in unprecedented ways) is one of Ayler’s supreme innovations. Most of the best writing about Ayler, including Ekkehard Jost’s in Free Jazz and Martin Williams’s in Jazz Masters in Transition (both books recently reprinted by Da Capo Press), stress that the saxophonist’s solos are filled with phrases (Jost calls them “sound-spans”) that can be heard as thematic variations on his composed melodies. Although phrase shapes do often remain consistent, and the pattern of distortion may be systematic, it has struck me as misguided to focus on Ayler’s solos for melodic content when their fascination is rhythmic. And to hear Ayler for the rhythmic trailblazer that he was, the croonings and honks of his tenor must be surrounded by the splintered dissemblings of Peacock’s bass and the cymbal-centered whoosh (vocally reinforced) of Murray’s drums. Murray and (for a brief time) Ayler worked with Cecil Taylor, and the pianist’s role in liberating jazz from fixed meter cannot be underestimated; but Taylor always overwhelmed his sidemen, and his early Units never attained the three-pronged balance of Ayler, Peacock, and Murray. These were the men with impulses compatible enough to replace the beat with raw energy; it was they who moved rhythm from the audience’s feet to its spine.
Don Cherry completes the quartet by adding touches of restraint and fragility without allowing the others to overwhelm him. His playing on The Hilversum Session is by turns direct and dense, and he shadows Ayler expertly on the theme statements. Having previously worked with Coleman, Coltrane, Lacy, Rollins, and Shepp, Cherry was well prepared for the challenge of a major saxophonist, and his time with Ayler completed his apprenticeship. The years with Ornette Coleman did serve as Cherry’s basic formative experience, but even so committed a Cherry fan as Ekkehard Jost might reconsider the influence of Ayler’s childlike, universal melodies on Cherry’s later work.
These melodies assumed an even greater importance two years later, when Ayler returned to Europe with his reformed quintet. This group, heard on last year’s Lorrach/Paris 1966 (hat MUSICS), was no match for the earlier band, despite the strong support of bassist William Folwell and drummer Beaver Harris. Don Ayler was simply a skittering trumpet facsimile of his brother, without the poise or eloquence of Cherry; and the seesawing of Dutch violinist Michel Sampson’s leads froze the music. Yet there is added exhilaration in the melody statements, a level of ecstatic abandon Albert achieved with Don that accommodated even Sampson. These ensembles were now central to Ayler’s music, spreading to greater lengths, incorporating various Ayler tunes in medley fashion, resurfacing constantly between solos.
The emotional charge of these melodies as played by the Ayler bands is the most ineffable of Albert Ayler’s achievements, for the songs create an aura of spirituality that validates such titles as “Holy Family,” “Spirits Rejoice,” and “Angels.” This aura has moved many of those listeners and musicians (including John Coltrane, whose final period was shaped by Ayler’s example) who sound like displaced flower children when attempting to articulate Ayler’s importance. Don Cherry may have said it most succinctly when he called “Ghosts,” Ayler’s most famous tune, “mankind’s national anthem.” For all the talk of a new and enlightened consciousness in music, it was Ayler, his band, and his tunes that left a body of work so primal it seems to exist on another plane. Perhaps time will reveal this charlatan as a saint.
(Osmosis and hat MUSICS are available from New Music Distribution Service, 500 Broadway, New York, New York 10012.)
The Boston Phoenix (18 January 1983) - USA
**½ Albert Ayler, SWING LOW SWEET SPIRITUAL (Osmosis). These six spirituals and quasi-spirituals recorded in 1964 by tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler testify to the wayward, boundless fervor of his free-jazz frenzy. They don’t provide much more, however. Once you get past the initial sweeping theme statements, this record features little of the nuance and invention of Archie Shepp’s analagous work on Goin’ Home, little of the cataclysmic rush of the best Ayler. On “Deep River” or the two takes of “Old Man River,” Ayler doesn’t allow himself the leeway he takes with his own compositions — perhaps the material was too rich with associations for someone who started out playing at funerals in a band with his father. This reserve extends to the set’s accompanists, pianist Call Cobbs and bassist Henry Grimes embellish in spurts, at a remove from Ayler’s statements, and drummer Sunny Murray’s contribution is minimal. The lack of collective engagement on Swing Low Sweet Spiritual suggests what other recently unearthed performances make explicit: that Ayler’s genius depended upon, as much as it inspired, primitivist abandon in his accompanists.
[The following review covers three Ayler albums, all posthumously released.]
The Wire (No. 3, March 1983) - UK
ALBERT AYLER: Swing Low Sweet Spiritual (Osmosis Records 4001)
Recorded: Atlantic Studios, NYC - 24th February, 1964.
Side One: ‘Going Home’; ‘Old Man River’; ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’. Side Two: ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’; ‘Swing Low Sweet Spiritual’; ‘Deep River’; ‘Old Man River’.
Albert Ayler (ts, ss); Call Cobbs (p); Henry Grimes (b); Sunny Murray (d).
ALBERT AYLER: Lorrach/Paris 1966 (Hat Musics 3500)
Recorded: S W German Radio - 7th November, 1966, and Radio France - 13th November, 1966.
Side One: ‘Bells’; ‘Jesus’. Side Two: ‘Our Prayer’; ‘Spirits’; ‘Holy Ghost’. Side Three: ‘Ghosts’; ‘Ghosts’. Side Four: ‘Holy Family’.
Albert Ayler (ts); Don Ayler (tpt); Michael Sampson (vln); William Folwell (b); Beaver Harris (d).
ALBERT AYLER QUINTET: At Slug’s Saloon, Vol One & Two (Base 3031, 3032)
Recorded: Jan Werner- lst May, 1966.
Side One: ‘Truth Is Marching In’. Side Two: ‘Our Prayer’, Side One: ‘Bells’. Side Two: ‘Ghosts’.
Albert Ayler (ts); Don Ayler (tpt); Michael Sampson (vln); Lewis Worrell (b); Ron Jackson (d).
Given the fact that practically all of his best work - Spiritual Unity, Spirits, Ghosts and the recently released Prophecy and Hilversum Session - was recorded in 1964, one goes first for the legendary spirituals album, and is massively disappointed. I suppose one expected those near-pentecostal freak-outs that occur on his own hymn-like originals, the tenor hysterically howling in the aisle while the group maintains the sobriety. Ayler here sticks reverently to the tunes and is dull. His soprano nowhere approaches the passion shown on My Name Is Albert Ayler, and is often out of tune, while his tenor - apart from some busking in the vibrato and whimperings at the close of a phrase - is careful rather than caring. All the duet sections with the corny Call Cobbs remind one of an Edwardian recital of ‘In A Monastery Garden’, one posing with a roll of sheet music, the other with rosewater on his hair. Murray is inaudible - he often was - and the only drama and adventure comes from Grimes, who succeeds in giving the leader some momentum.
As a missing piece of the jigsaw, Swing Low Sweet Spiritual has the fascination of finding, perhaps, Cecil Taylor doing his best on ‘The Girl With The Flaxen Hair’; as music, unfortunately, it isn’t up to much. What did Ayler think he was doing here? Probably looking for a ready-made armature to house his improvisations - an old form which would carry the burden of black American history and conventional spirituality for him. It’s lonely being far out. Mingus and later, the Art Ensemble and Air, managed to roll out the whole heritage within a number; Ayler never really reconciled his antique forms with his wildly contemporary improvisations. The tragedy is that before he became self-conscious about it, letting the music follow its head, he made the most artistic sense.
None of his post-1964 idioms came near the intensity of which he was capable. New Grass, the attempt at a crossover into r&b and soul, was frequently daft, while the collaboration with Mary Maria was disastrous. The other albums here come from Ayler’s collective period in which the Moorish-Balkan pat-a-cake structures buckle in the middle to release famous breaks. There is nothing here that you don’t already know from Love Cry and Greenwich Village - except that Paris variations on ‘Ghosts’ sound as if the group is desperate to ring the changes on all those predictable swoons and ceremonials. One is not surprised. Ayler must have known that he had painted himself into a corner as far as improvisation was concerned. Most of his solos sound like Ornette on violin, brutally high ululations that register little beyond a one-dimensional fury.
Of the two collections, the Lorrach/Paris is the better recorded. The ensembles on the familiar ‘Bells’, ‘Our Prayer’ and particularly ‘Holy Ghost’ are charming - and consequently at odds with the uniformly end-of-tether solos. Sampson is clear for a change, and comes on like Barry Guy on violin on ‘Bells’ to good effect, whereas the At Slug’s Saloon recording reduces him to whiskery whistlings. There’s quite a bit of murk at Slug’s, and a lengthy conversation across ‘Bells’. One finds oneself grateful for the odd divergence in intonation or placing in both lots of routines.
Albert Ayler has been dead 13 years. His best work still shakes the heart like nothing else, but we are talking about five albums from a single year, and a few great moments. He hadn’t lost it, any more than he couldn’t find it, as ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and ‘For John Coltrane’ prove, but he was possibly so driven by the knowledge that he had found a route to the spirit that nobody wanted that he dissipated his power looking for popular formats.
Gary Giddins maintains that Ayler’s synthesis ‘blanched in a flower power compromise’. It blanched in something all right. It’s a problem of our times.
Discography: Swing Low Sweet Spiritual
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