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Record Reviews 5:
Holy Ghost (1)

BAN203

record reviews

Holy Ghost

 

Cleveland Plain Dealer (26 September, 2004) - USA

A New Light

CD set awakens spirit of intrepid jazzman

by John Soeder

 

Who was Albert Ayler?

Good question, even decades after the death of the avant- garde jazz saxophonist from Cleveland.

Ayler (pronounced "EYE-ler") remains "a mysterious figure," says Dean Blackwood, head of Revenant Records.

"It's mysterious how he got from point A to point Z in his musical life," Blackwood says. "He died mysteriously, too. People still don't know exactly what happened there."

Ayler's body was found floating in New York City's East River on the morning of Nov. 25, 1970. He was 34.

To fill in some blanks about Ayler, Blackwood's record company has put together "Holy Ghost," a 10-CD Ayler retrospective. Set for release Tuesday, Oct. 5, it's the most extensive overview of the '60s free-jazz champion's career to date. The lavish boxed set takes its title from a pronouncement by Ayler, a deeply spiritual artist who saw himself as part of a sax-playing trinity with jazz immortals John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.

"Trane was the father. Pharoah was the son. I was the holy ghost," Ayler said.

Two of the box's discs capture the Albert Ayler Quintet (including Ayler's younger brother Don on trumpet) in concert April 16-17, 1966, at the old LaCave club on Euclid Avenue. Ayler is in typically freewheeling form, juxtaposing soul- searching reveries and honking and wailing outbursts on his sax with more melodic passages.

He was based in New York City for much of his career, although he often returned to Cleveland.

Nonetheless, Ayler was never as popular in his hometown or even in his homeland as he was in Europe.

"His music was too far out for people here," says his father, Edward Ayler. "They had to catch up to him."

Saxman Ernie Krivda, a fixture on the local jazz scene, got to jam with Ayler in the early '60s at the Esquire, a Cleveland hot spot.

"It was known for grooving jazz good-time stuff," Krivda says. "When Albert came in and laid out his very uncompromising musical viewpoint, it was not well-taken by much of the clientele or by the owner, who banned Albert.

"They thought he was nuts."

Critic Max Harrison called Ayler "possibly the last major figure" in jazz whose music conveyed "a real sense of danger, a seemingly authentic whiff of hemlock."

"It's not about notes anymore," Ayler said by way of describing his aesthetic in a 1967 interview with The Plain Dealer.

"It's a sound a feeling," he said.

"His music has a way of smacking people in the face with a powerful expression," says Ben Young, who produced the "Holy Ghost" set.

"It demands some sort of reaction," Young says. "You can't ignore it. It can't be thought of as background music.

"We know Elvis Costello and Brahms both can become elevator music. It can't be done with Albert Ayler.

"He seems to communicate, in a very blunt fashion, something very important to him. You have to come to grips with it and you have to sort it out."

Another highlight of the new box is a recording of the Albert Ayler Quartet's performance of a medley including "Truth Is Marching In" and "Our Prayer" (the latter was written by Don) at Coltrane's funeral in New York City in 1967.

"Al told me how sad it was," says Edward Ayler, 90.

"Coltrane tried to pick up the avant-garde from Al," Edward says. "Coltrane told his wife to let Al's group play at the funeral."

The elder Ayler's home in Warrensville Heights is filled with mementos of his son, including trophies Albert won as a standout on the golf team at John Adams High School.

"He played golf as well as he played his horn," Edward Ayler says. "At 18, he shot a 77. But music was his first love."

As a teenager, Albert spent two summers on tour with bluesman Little Walter.

After high school, Albert joined the Army for three years. He was stationed in France and played in an Army band. "Holy Ghost" includes a CD of the military ensemble's recordings of "Tenderly" and "Leap Frog," both featuring Ayler on tenor sax.

The boxed set itself is a work of art, a replica of a hand-carved spirit box. Common to Asian, African and American Indian cultures, a spirit box typically houses sacred items, Blackwood says.

For "Holy Ghost," the goal was to create "a little event in a box, more like an art object than something ephemeral," he says. "I'm hoping people treat it as a treasured item."

His Austin, Texas-based boutique record label's last big project, a 2001 box devoted to blues pioneer Charley Patton, won three Grammy Awards.

"Holy Ghost" aims to retrace how Ayler went from "a fairly conventional background" to the cutting edge of jazz, Blackwood says.

"His music genuinely shocked people," he says. "He was rejected not only by listeners, but by other musicians.

"He was a big fan of Ornette Coleman and Coltrane. But Ayler never considered copying them. It was more like he drew inspiration from their trailblazing.

"Despite the fact people walked off the bandstand when he would get up to play, he persisted. . . . He had an unshakable faith in the value of his own work."

Rejection "didn't dampen his spirit at all," Edward Ayler says. "He went on with his music. He was self-determined, an exceptional boy."

"Ayler was Great Black Music personified," jazz historian and photographer Val Wilmer declares in the boxed set's 208- page hardcover book, complete with rare photographs and essays examining various facets of Ayler's life.

His music "encompassed every thread woven into the fabric of so-called jazz," Wilmer writes. "He took as his source material the spirituals, funeral dirges, bugle calls and marches of the past, and, though he seldom did so, he could really play the blues."

Even at his most abstract, Ayler "is accessible for people who give [him] a chance," Blackwood says.

"It's not completely unbridled playing," he says. "Ayler really did want to give people something to grab onto, as far as a hook. It was one of his stated aims, to have something almost hummable.

"He used chunks of what we talk about as collective musical memory folky melodies with an almost singsongy, nursery- rhyme quality to them."

At times, it seems as if Ayler is playing "the national anthem of some country you've never heard of, yet it's naggingly familiar," Blackwood says.

For a prime example, listen to one of Ayler's best-known tunes, "Truth Is Marching In." "Holy Ghost" contains no fewer than five versions of the majestically anthemlike composition, which Taylor singles out as "an absolute high point for Ayler's creative expression."

Among the other odds and ends enclosed in the box are a dogwood bloom (an "organic" symbol of the spiritual nature of Ayler's music, Blackwood says) and a reproduction of a 1969 issue of the Cricket music journal. It includes an essay by Ayler in which he describes a series of apocalyptic visions, including a close encounter with a flying saucer.

"He would see visions," Edward Ayler says. "When he was in New York City, he told me about the angels he saw, how tall they were."

Playing the blues all over again

As a child, Albert would peek behind a radio, trying to figure out where the music came from, Edward says.

He took young Albert to the Palace Theatre to catch performances by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Lester Young.

During those concerts, Albert "would stand up with intense interest," Edward says.

Albert was 7 when he started playing sax. He and his father, also a sax player, took music lessons together and performed duets in church.

"At first, the alto was almost as big as he was," Edward says. "But he took to it like a fish to water. . . . He had it all in him."

Edward doesn't like to discuss Albert's death. He believes his son may have been murdered over unpaid debts.

There was no sign of foul play, however, according to the biography in the "Holy Ghost" box. A medical examiner listed the cause of death as "asphyxia by submersion" in other words, drowning.

Since then, rampant speculation has blamed Ayler's demise on everything from a run-in with drug dealers to a government plot to wipe out influential blacks.

Others believe Ayler committed suicide. Shortly before his death, he reportedly told a friend his blood needed to be shed to save his mother and his brother Don, who had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Ayler is buried in Beachwood's Highland Park Cemetery. His mother, Myrtle Ayler, died in 1985.

Don, who made music only sporadically after Albert's death, is in a psychiatric hospital, Edward says.

"Holy Ghost" is coming out against the wishes of Ayler's widow, Arlene Ayler of Euclid, and their daughter, Desiree Ayler of Garfield Heights.

"We gave [Revenant] no authorization," Desiree says. "They don't want to pay us. . . . My father would be very upset if he knew these people were doing this to us."

Ayler also is survived by a son, Curtis Roundtree, from a different relationship.

"Revenant always endeavors to work as closely as possible with the family members, friends and colleagues who were close to the artist, and did so in this case as well," says Blackwood, who is an attorney.

"As a legal matter, the Ayler estate is far from settled," Blackwood says. "All legitimate claimants to the estate have been or will be compensated as provided for by law."

Rounding out "Holy Ghost" are two CDs of illuminating interviews with the soft-spoken Ayler.

"I'm hoping . . . all the people [who] like jazz will like what I'm playing on my instrument," he said during a Danish radio program in 1964. "The music we're playing now is just the blues of all of America, all over again. But it's just a different kind of blues.

"It's the new blues. People must listen to this music because they'll be hearing it all the time, because if it's not me, it'll be someone else . . . playing it.

"This is the only way that's left for the musicians to play. All the other ways have been explored."

Still avant-garde after all these years

Today, you can hear echoes of Ayler in maverick saxophonists such as Sweden's Mats Gustafsson or Brazil's Ivo Perelman, producer Young says.

Ayler's influence extends beyond jazz, too.

"To a certain extent, the jaggedness of hip-hop has caught people up to some flavors regarded as avant-garde in the '60s," Young says.

The forward-thinking spirit embodied by Ayler also has been embraced by Sonic Youth and other bands "on the extreme edges of alternative rock 'n' roll," Young says.

Edward Ayler says he initially shrugged off Albert's music as "anti-swing," although he eventually arrived at a deeper appreciation for it.

"I learned to grasp the feeling in his music," Edward says. "It's out of this world."

He keeps a journal of excerpts from newspaper and magazine articles about Albert ("His life was sustained by deep mysticism . . ."), copied by hand between notebook pages filled with prayers and spiritual reflections. He still regularly plays Albert's records, too.

"I enjoy it," Edward says. "My son!"

He laughs softly.

Who was Albert Ayler? Maybe his father knows best.

"He was a loving child," Edward says. "He was my pal. . . . Yes he was something."

*

 

Clevescene.com (29 September, 2004) - USA

Ghost Story

A Cleveland avant-jazz great raises hackles again. This time, from the grave.

By Carlo Wolff

Albert Ayler, a controversial saxophonist known for his startling, otherworldly music, is fanning the flames all over again.

Some say the Cleveland native couldn't negotiate the changes and chords that any respectable jazz saxophonist ought to know. Others call him a pillar of avant-garde jazz tenor, along with the similarly divisive Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, the most legitimized and commercial of this titanic trio.

On October 5, Revenant Records will release Holy Ghost, a nine-CD box of Ayler material spanning from 1960, when he played in an Army band, to 1970, when he died at age 34; his body turned up that November, drowned, in Brooklyn's East River. Some say he was murdered, alluding to a drug habit that led to mounting debt. Others assert that he touched nothing harder than marijuana. While Ayler's death remains unexplained, his music is beginning to make sense, thanks largely to this remarkable set.

Clearing Holy Ghost for release, however, hasn't been easy. "There are several contestants to the estate, and ultimately, all of them will get something out of this," says Ben Young, the set's primary researcher. For some of them, satisfaction might be a long time coming.

Carrie Roundtree Lucas, who dated Albert in 1957 and had a son by him in 1958, says Revenant contacted her about the box, and "everything's OK." Their son, Curtis D. Roundtree, has ultimate authority over Holy Ghost, she says.

But Arlene Ayler, who was married to Albert from 1964 until his death, hasn't even heard of the Revenant box. Though she says she's not party to Albert's estate, she claims that their daughter, Desiree, is.

"I don't want a story put out on this," says Desiree, who receives royalties for her father's work on another label. "I'm going to call my lawyer. There's no story going to come out on this, when I didn't even give the permission for [Holy  Ghost] to come out."

Also likely to benefit from the boxed set's release are Ayler's father, Edward, who still lives in Warrensville Heights, and his brother, Don. Albert's trumpet foil in their groundbreaking groups of the mid-'60s, Don Ayler is a resident at Cleveland's Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare Center, pending a hearing on charges of gross sexual imposition and sexual battery stemming from an incident last November.

Besides his surviving family, many musicians who played with Albert still live in greater Cleveland, among them Lloyd Pearson, a tenor man who led the R&B group the Counts of Rhythm with Albert in the '50s, when Albert was a golf star at John Adams High School and Lloyd was at East Tech.

"Albert was a nice cat, a gentle person," says Pearson. "Everybody liked him. He went in the Army and came back with this new type of music. He came back playing a new horn, but he wasn't playing the regular, standard blues changes. He was playing him."

Among the Holy Ghost recordings never before available commercially are two full discs of April 1966 concerts at the legendary Cleveland venue La Cave, featuring the Ayler brothers, Dutch violinist Michel Samson, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, and bassist Clyde Shy (aka Mutawef Shaheed), a high school classmate of Don Ayler's.

Besides the music, each Revenant box contains a dogwood blossom (intended to enhance the set's "organic" feel), reproductions of posters of Ayler shows, tributes to Ayler from those turbulent times, and a hardbound book of more than 200 pages reflecting on the arc of Ayler's tempestuous career and mysterious life. The book is crammed with information about all of Ayler's known performances and recordings, considerations of his art by Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones; the black militant philosopher was among Ayler's earliest champions) and British journalist Val Wilmer, and reminiscences by a wide range of friends and acquaintances.

Ernie Krivda, a Lakewood-based tenor saxophonist, jammed with Ayler in the early '60s at "105," a legendary strip on Euclid Avenue around East 105th Street.

"At this particular time, guys are starting to do different stuff, and the 'new thing' is kind of at hand, so cats are experimenting," Krivda remembers. "Albert Ayler would come in and play, and it would be kind of upsetting to a lot of people. There's a sense of irony to this, because he wasn't the only one doing this, but something about his demeanor got him banned. The funny thing is, [early Ayler disciple] Frank Wright was also sitting in, and he was as 'out' as you could be, but they liked him.

"The thing with these particular guys was, they fundamentally weren't real solid. Everybody tries to draw comparisons to the music of [Arnold] Schoenberg, [Anton] Webern, that kind of thing, but those people were fundamentally very sound. But it was an interesting time, and it did challenge the music, and there are things that were part of it and we could use."

Accessible Ayler tunes, such as "Spirits Rejoice," "Our Prayer," and "Bells," seem to spring from a timeless well of marches, spirituals, gospel, even folk. Ayler was a marvelous, accessible melodist, as well as a challenging, exhausting improviser. That juxtaposition makes his music striking -- and much more aggressive than he was in person.

"He and his brother were really, really friendly guys," says Jon Goldman, an aficionado of imaginative jazz. "In the '70s and '80s and '90s, you would read interviews with rock musicians who listed him among their influences, whereas he encountered a lot of hostility from mainstream jazz musicians." Wynton Marsalis, Goldman recalls, "admitted to me that despite the fact he'd never really even heard an Albert Ayler record, he still disparaged his approach to music."

That approach and Ayler's complexity appeal to Dean Blackwood, who co-founded Revenant Records in 1996. His mission: to present "raw musics" in upscale, meticulously recorded and researched packages. The seven-CD, $150 Revenant box Screamin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton won three Grammy awards in 2003. The Ayler box, retailing for $100, is likely to win a Grammy or three of its own next year.

"You've got this guy from a fairly conventional background -- he grew up in fairly comfortable circumstances, he was captain of the golf team in high school, and he played as a teenager in Little Walter's blues band -- and suddenly he decides to make a complete break with not only jazz convention, but really, musical conventions of pitch and form, to really break out on his own," Blackwood says. "While he had certain models in Coltrane and Ornette, they weren't necessarily musical blueprints; they were more like spiritual and moral models. His music sounds nothing like any of these guys. The kicker is, despite repeated and violent rejections at every turn, not only from audiences but from fellow musicians . . . this guy soldiered through."

"At first, I couldn't understand it," Edward Ayler says of his son's music. "But later on, I really took to it, saw where he was coming from and that he was really exceptional, that the music was out of this world. I understood it then. I have never heard any music like that."

*

 

The Sunday Herald (3 October, 2004) - Scotland

Spirit in the Sky

Jazz: By David Keenan

Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost (Revenant)

*****

AT the funeral of John Coltrane, in 1967, the late saxophonist Albert Ayler told critic Frank Kofsky that: “Trane was the father. Pharaoh was the son. I was the holy ghost.” That was a mere three years before Ayler’s own still mysterious  death, his body fished out of New York’s East River. He was just 34 years old.

Ayler often talked of his own music as a divinely inspired instrument of revelation and deliverance and thought of John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and himself as making up a holy trinity dedicated to turning jazz to prophecy by pushing it beyond conventional notes and scales in an attempt to find a new, transcendent form of harmony.

Paradoxically, Ayler drew inspiration from the basest sources, synthesising funeral marches, the hallelujah sounds of New Orleans polyphony, fragments of folk song, mutant national anthems, ecstatic gospel and the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane with a devouring, mile-wide vibrato and an almost supernatural control of the saxophone’s upper registers. His sound was both terrifying and beautiful, a fanfare for the coming Judgement Day.

The radical black poet Amiri Baraka described it as “the dynamite sound of the time”, recalling a concert from 1966 where Ayler joined Coltrane onstage, his horn held so high that it pointed straight to the ceiling. “And then, Lord,” Baraka wrote, “with that pose as his heart’s signature, he began to open a hole in the roof so his angels could descend, summoned by his exploding plaints.”

Tales abound of Ayler’s reputed preternatural powers. The drummer Milford Graves claims to have seen him blow a hole in a concrete wall with the power of his horn.

“I can’t be confined to an earthly plane,” Ayler confirmed. “Even though I was, like, born here and everything.”

Despite the weight of myth that has always accompanied him, Ayler’s back catalogue has been badly served. For a while it was all over the place, with carelessly packaged Impulse reissues rubbing shoulders with shoddy bootlegs of his ESP Disk material and a smattering of semi-legitimate live sides. But with Get Back now producing good, faithful ESP Disk re-issues and Water taking charge of the Shandar sides, all of that seems to be changing.

Still, nothing could have set the scene for this, a world-beating, nine-CD set of rare and unreleased recordings that span Ayler’s career, from a disc of army band run-throughs recorded in 1960 while Ayler was still in service through to his last ever recorded show at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, in 1970.

The whole deal comes sealed in a beautiful “Spirit Box”, moulded from a hand-carved original. It also includes a massive 210-page hardback book, a reproduction of selections from Imamu Baraka’s underground jazz journal, Cricket, a reprint of the Paul Haines’s booklet that accompanied early copies of his 1964 side, Spiritual Unity, a precious photograph of Ayler as a horn-wielding 10-year-old, a copy of a handwritten note and a delicate pressed flower.

It’s a set packed with highlights, but some of the most jaw-dropping moments are: a clutch of shows from the Ayler orchestra’s 1966 tour that polarised audiences every bit as much as Dylan’s newly electrified folk; a 1968 gig with Ayler as a guest of Sanders; a live encounter with his trumpeting brother Don Ayler’s sextet from 1969; a 1966 quintet show featuring the colossal Frank Wright on second tenor; and – the real gravy – a six-minute recording taken from Coltrane’s funeral in 1967, featuring both Ayler brothers, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Milford Graves playing the saxophonist through to the other side. It’s one of the most harrowingly beautiful pieces of music ever conceived by human fists and throats.

Much more than the reissue of the year, Holy Ghost feels – and sounds – like the work of lifetimes.

*

 

The Austin Chronicle (8 October, 2004) - USA

Holy Ghost
Revenant Records returns with free-jazz specter Albert Ayler

BY HARVEY PEKAR

"Revenant Records tends to focus its energies on artists that we're passionate about, but whose story is somewhat elusive. Charley Patton. Dock Boggs. Charlie Feathers. Captain Beefheart. Harry Smith. Even our co-founder, John Fahey. Albert Ayler's story hits that same nerve: child prodigy, teenage member of little Walter's band, 'Little Bird' of Cleveland, featured U.S. Army band soloist ultimately setting out to forget everything he knew about how to properly play the sax so he could channel symphonies to God out of his horn.

"He was fascinated by the music of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, yet despite repeated rejection from not only the audience, but from other musicians, Ayler had such a fully formed and unshakeable faith in the value of his musical statement that what he borrowed from Coleman and Coltrane was not a musical blueprint, but the fundamental moral inspiration to make music his own way. Why was this golf champion from Cleveland driven to make musical statements still being argued about and retaining genuine power to shock? Holy Ghost is our attempt at reckoning Ayler's story."

So says Austin's Dean Blackwood, the man behind Revenant Records. After receiving much favorable comment with 2001's Grammy-winning 7-CD Charley Patton box set ("Dead Man Blues," Music, October 26, 2001), Revenant and Blackwood have fielded another winner in their handsome new Albert Ayler compilation. Holy Ghost is a 9-CD overview of Ayler's music, including interviews and a bonus CD on which Ayler performs two selections while a member of the     U.S. Army band in 1960. Also included is a 210-page book commenting on Ayler's life and music.

Ayler was among the most influential of all free jazzmen, marking the styles of not only young musicians but established stars, most notably Coltrane. He didn't live long (1936-1970) or record much, so the content of Holy Ghost adds significantly to his relatively meager discography. Some of the music here was recorded live using primitive equipment, its fidelity leaving much to be desired. Thank heaven we have it in any condition. Ayler's music remains controversial, and the more of it we have, the better we can evaluate and enjoy it.

Ayler began playing alto sax while still a child, taught by his saxophonist father. Gospel music had a profound impact on both of them. His mother was very active in the church. By his midteens, Ayler was sitting in and jamming at local clubs. Little Walter Jacobs heard him there and was impressed enough to take him on tour. Ayler also played with Lloyd Price for a short time, and after leaving high school, got into the local R&B scene. I'm from Cleveland and I knew a guy who used to jam with Ayler as a high schooler. I asked him if Ayler had a good knowledge of chord changes.

"He seemed to have contempt for the changes," I was told.

Looking to enlarge his experience, he joined the army and was shipped overseas, based in Orleans, France, where he played tenor saxophone in the Army's 76th AG band, performing music ranging from semiclassical to big band swing. At this time, he was interested in the music of jazz innovators, including Coleman, Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. After being discharged in 1961, Ayler played in Europe for a while, as his wild, advanced playing was often ridiculed by American jazzmen. He met with resistance from European jazzmen, too, but found others there that had a positive take on what he was trying to do.

The first tracks on Holy Ghost are by a Finnish group in 1962 that employed some well-known themes, Rollins' "Sonnymoon for Two," and standards "Summertime" and "On Green Dolphin Street." Guitarist Herbert Katz leads the group, which also includes a fine boppish pianist, Teuvo Suojarvi. Suojarvi follows the chord progressions meticulously, but Ayler departs from them, and sometimes plays in other keys than the pianist. He doesn't play a flood of notes and scream often in the upper register, which soon became his trademarks, but his solos, despite their unorthodoxy, are put together logically, and I can always tell where he's in the chorus. Treading that line steadily is not easy.

We hear him later in 1962 as a member of Cecil Taylor's avant-garde band. His impassioned work is what came to be expected of him later. Note that, like Taylor and unlike Coleman in the early Sixties, Ayler didn't try to swing.

The first two discs feature Ayler's appearances with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sonny Murray in June 1964, and in September of that year, sessions with Peacock, Murray, and trumpeter Don Cherry, Coleman's close  collaborator. Here we have characteristic and mature performances by Ayler. In evidence are his honks, above-the- normal-upper-register screams and squeals, lines played so fast they seem to be a blur of notes and a huge vibrato. His original compositions are also unique, so archaic sounding that they seem modern. The influence of both church and martial music is apparent in them.

The third and fourth CDs of Holy Ghost have Ayler back in Cleveland for a date at La Cave, normally a folk club, in April 1966. Clevelander and Firesign Theatre member Peter Bergman had something to do with booking and/or promoting the appearance. Ayler's got a new lineup here: His brother Donald, who'd only been playing trumpet since 1963, appears on that instrument. Mutawef Shaheed plays bass and Ronald Shannon Jackson is on drums. Sitting in with Ayler for one set is tenorman Frank Wright, one of Ayler's first disciples and a Clevelander as well. Classical Dutch violinist Michel Samson went down to see about sitting in and found himself made a regular touring member of the   group. Samson is an inexperienced and tentative soloist, but adds an unusual color to the band.

Don Ayler sounds strong in the ensembles and is an aggressive soloist, but his work is repetitive. Still, it provides a nice contrast with Albert's sound. Donald has a blunt, straightforward attack, a solid, compact tone, and likes to play flurries of notes, which are, unfortunately, too similar to one another. Albert, for his part, is in great form throughout. Note that when playing at slow speeds how eerily heartfelt his work is. Sometimes the playing of the ensemble is so down-home it's reminiscent of a Salvation Army band.

The sides cut in Berlin and Rotterdam on disc five were recorded in November 1966, with the Ayler brothers, Samson, bassist Bill Folwell, and drummer Beaver Harris. These pieces have much more ensemble playing and are more highly arranged than previous Ayler performances. The reason given for this by the annotator is that Donald Ayler had so little experience on trumpet that the band's book had to be reshaped to "accommodate the members' relative skill levels." In any event, we hear a montage of familiar themes and not much solo improvisation.

Disc six (1967-1968) contains three tracks cut at the Newport Jazz Festival, a selection from John Coltrane's funeral, a long Pharoah Sanders track with Ayler, and an Ayler instrumental quartet augmented by singers Mary Maria Parks and Vivian Bostic. There's also too much ensemble work on the Newport and Coltrane funeral tracks, although Ayler plays with a great deal of passion on them. The Sanders selection contains exciting improvising, both solo and collective. Trumpeter Chris Capers turns in burning work here.

In August 1968, Ayler made what, for him, were some unusual recordings for Impulse!, with a piano, bass, and drums rhythm section, which were demos for his New Grass LP, regarded by a number of observers as an attempt to expand his audience to pop fans. The demos were not used on the LP, which producer Bob Thiele turned into far more of a sell-out work than Ayler envisioned. One demo is a blues, with the bassist employing a walking beat. Ayler uses a raspy tone, but adheres to the form and turns in idea-filled solo work. Following this is a selection where he preaches a  sermon, and two songs written by Ayler and his collaborator Mary Maria Parks. The latter three tracks are aesthetically insubstantial, except for Ayler's tenor playing on "Thank God for Women" and "New Ghosts."

The seventh CD begins with two tracks by Donald Ayler's group, including Albert, that are so poorly recorded they're practically indecipherable. The remaining tracks feature Albert with a rhythm section in 1970. He sounds great; he's added to his repertoire of licks and devices while retaining all his virtues. His playing is fiery, and sometimes thoughtful as well. At that point in his career, shortly before his death, he was a learning, growing musician who might've become even greater than he was. He must've realized that his amazing acrobatics in the upper register and speed, while mind- boggling, were not enough to sustain him through an entire career by themselves. There is a limit to how fast and high listeners can enjoy music. Ayler probably knew he had to broaden his vocabulary.

The remaining two CDs contain interviews with Ayler, during which he recounts his past history and talks about what he's currently trying to accomplish. He's a soft-spoken and surprisingly cheerful and tolerant interviewee whose comments will significantly flesh out interested listeners' knowledge of him. If the preceding seven discs of Holy Ghost haven't already accomplished just that.

*

 

The Scotsman (9 October, 2004) - Scotland

Spiritual renaissance

by Brian Morton

JIMI HENDRIX DIED ON 18 September, 1970, in London. Saxophonist Albert Ayler died in New York’s East River a month later, an event marked by considerably fewer headlines. There were conspiracy theories in both cases: were the police involved? The Mob? Aliens?

No serious doubt remains about the cause of Jimi’s death (over-indulgence) or of Albert’s (a depressive’s suicide); speculation has only served to blunt the recognition that within weeks in 1970 not one but two of the most innovative figures in black American music departed the planet.

Hendrix’s music has entered the polite mainstream, name-checked by serious composers, arranged for string quartet. Ayler’s seems unlikely to find a comfortable place in such company. Even half a lifetime later, listening to an Ayler record is an unsettling experience. Using a Fibercane #4, the hardest plastic reed available, and screaming or growling through his mouthpiece, he played tenor saxophone with an intensity that challenges credulity.

Until recently, finding an Ayler record presented a challenge. Where most big record stores have whole wildernesses of Coltrane, you’d be hard pressed to find a copy even of Ayler’s 1964 masterpiece, Spiritual Unity.

That has changed with the release of Holy Ghost, a nine-CD set of previously unreleased Ayler material. These live, lo-fi discs from Revenant Records almost double the amount of Ayler’s music currently available. They sum up a career that began in 1962, scuffling a living in Scandinavian exile, and the evolution of a style. Ayler’s preferred method was to stitch large-scale musical canvases out of two, three or more of his own starkly beautiful melodies: Ghosts, Spirits, Bells, Vibrations, Mothers, Children, tunes that have been routinely misidentified on most reissues. This is what he does with Love Cry and the declamatory Truth Is Marching In at Coltrane’s funeral in July 1967, one of the most moving tracks here.

The Revenant set takes its title from Ayler’s claim that "Trane was the Father. Pharoah [Sanders] was the Son. I was the Holy Ghost." If this sounds preposterously grandiloquent, even megalomaniac, it squares with the religious reverence surrounding John Coltrane. Ayler rightly cast himself as the evanescent third of the modern jazz Trinity, but also as the purest bearer of its spirit. In contrast to Coltrane, who seemed forever lost in a harmonic labyrinth, certainly in contrast to Sanders, who followed blindly, Ayler is the most undiluted and radical of the three, drawing his inspiration from gospel, blues, field hollers and folk song.

Coltrane has attracted almost as many column inches as Jimi Hendrix. His increasingly pernicious influence can be heard almost every time a young saxophonist picks up his horn. Interesting how little mainstream space is given to more radical figures such as pianist Cecil Taylor. Another of the precious moments on Holy Ghost finds Ayler with Taylor’s quartet in Copenhagen, November 1962. It’s unusual to hear the saxophonist playing someone else’s material, but the iron-hard articulation and unearthly wail are unmistakable.

Ayler was never entirely at home on this planet, let alone Cleveland where he was born in 1936 and where much of Holy Ghost was taped. He encountered racism in the military and developed a self-protective reticence, even mystery, but nothing that hints at a Messiah complex. He deserves more than an eccentric’s spot in musical history.

His influence is everywhere, though rarely acknowledged. You find as much Ayler as Hendrix in the hard black rock of groups such as Living Color and Fishbone. His deceptively simple, even crude approach is an acknowledged influence on such current cult favourites as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sunburned Hand of the Man. He may have cast himself as a ghostly presence, but he still intervenes in human affairs whenever music aspires to conjure spirits.

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The Denver Post (10 October, 2004.) - USA

New light on mystery man

“Holy Ghost” casts scholarly eye on saxman Albert Ayler

By Bret Saunders

Remove the cover of the "spirit box" that holds the contents of the just-released "Holy Ghost," an affectionate unearthing of recordings made by the visionary saxophonist Albert Ayler, and you get more than the standard-issue stack of CDs with accompanying booklet.

The enclosed hardcover book is a dedicated work of scholarship, supplying details of Ayler's troubled life and a chronicle of every known occasion he took to the stage. Also included are facsimiles of a concert poster, a poetry booklet, an underground arts magazine circa 1969, a photo of a childhood Ayler brandishing his horn and, mysteriously, a pressed flower, encased in plastic.

Without hearing a note of the music, you know that this project was created with a deeply felt respect for the artist.

Revenant, the independent record label behind "Holy Ghost," has assembled this sort of presentation before, with recordings of the bluesman Charlie Patton. It seems the idea is for the listener to become immersed in the world of the performer to sense the importance of what he created. In the case of Ayler, whose music and life is shrouded in mystery, the release of mere scraps of additional material would be heralded as important news by his followers.

With "Holy Ghost," Revenant has produced seven discs of rare music. Just as enticing are a pair of CDs with 1964-70 Ayler interviews conducted in Europe, where he was more readily accepted than in his native U.S. This is a trove of outside-oriented improvisation, and it demands to be heard by followers of post-John Coltrane avant-garde jazz.

Ayler played the tenor saxophone as his primary instrument, and his brawny, wailing sound was a departure from his Cleveland childhood roots of straight-ahead jazz and rhythm and blues.

Drawing from the cacophony of New Orleans brass bands of the 1920s while playing as free as anyone committed to vinyl in the '60s, Ayler was often a source of controversy within the jazz community. His music didn't swing in the traditional sense, and he sought to communicate a sense of spirituality, as indicated in compositions with titles like "Spirits Rejoice" and "Truth Is Marching In." His simple melodies became overwhelming torrents of sound, resulting in his personalized version of ecstasy.

As anyone familiar with the free music of the '60s knows, it wasn't always recorded with the greatest of care. Portions of "Holy Ghost" sound distant, but for the most part, the music cuts through these sonic handicaps and communicates Ayler's sense of passion. The set also connects with other leaders of this creative music, featuring collaborations with pianist Cecil Taylor, trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders.

As for Ayler himself, questions remain surrounding his shocking November 1970 death (his body was discovered in New York's East River) at the age of 34. It's useless to speculate on what he might have created had he survived his demons.

But for those of us moved by the search for enlightenment he undertook during his short life, "Holy Ghost" adds several mesmerizing hours to his small discography. In addition to being a carefully assembled trip back to a turbulent era for music and, for that matter, all of American culture, it's a remarkable presentation of one artist within the realm of the still undervalued world of jazz.

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Het Parool (12 October, 2004) - Netherlands

Muziek uit een kistje

By Maartje Den Breejen

In de ochtend van 25 november 1970 werd het lijk van de 34-jarige saxofonist Albert Ayler gevonden in de East River, Brooklyn, New York. Hij was al twintig dagen zoek. Zangeres en liedschrijver Mary Maria, die met Ayler samenwerkte, riep de politie op tot een zoekactie. Dood door verdrinking, stelden de autoriteiten vast en daar bleef het bij.

Ayler is veel meer in de vergetelheid verdwenen dan hij verdient. Maar daar komt misschien verandering in. Met hulp van de erven Ayler is een prachtige heruitgave van veel van zijn muziek verschenen. Heruitgave is een understatement. In een beperkte oplage zijn replica's van een handgemaakt houten kistje verschenen, een soort herdenkingskistje is het, of een altaartje.

Er zit een rijk geïllustreerd boek met harde kaft in met biografie, discografie en tijdsbalk. Bijgevoegd zijn ook negen cd's met zeldzaam of nooit uitgegeven materiaal van Ayler uit vooral de jaren zestig. Het kistje bevat registraties van concerten in de St. Peter's Lutheran Church van New York, tijdens de begrafenis van John Coltrane, Aylers mentor.

Maar ook van een concert in De Doelen van Rotterdam, waar Peter de Wit door de microfoon schreeuwt: ''Dames en heren een welkom voor het Albert Ayler quintet en hun free spiritual music.''

Disc 8 en 9 bevat interviews, die Ayler gaf vlak voor zijn dood. En er zitten ook briefjes van Ayler in het kistje, en jeugdfoto's, een bloem in en cellofaantje, flyers ter aankondiging van zijn concerten, en een exemplaar van het in de jaren zestig onder zwarte jazzmusici beroemde blad The Cricket.

Het blad geeft een mooi tijdsbeeld van de opvattingen van de zwarte jazzscene in 1969. Er staat ook een vrij vernietigende recensie in van New grass, de laatste plaat die Ayler voor zijn dood uitbracht. Het stuk is geschreven door Larry Neal, die vol afschuw constateert dat Ayler een knieval voor het blanke publiek heeft gemaakt. Ayler speelt op New grass rythm & blues op de manier van witte rockmuzikanten. En dat vindt Neal maar niets. Juist omdat Ayler in zijn ogen een leven lang een lichtend voorbeeld voor zwarte jazzmusici was.

Zoals het hoort, zocht Ayler zijn inspiratie in traditionele zwarte muziek. Hij putte uit de begrafenismuziek uit New  Orleans, spirituals, en volksmelodieën en nam die mee in het universum van de free jazz, waar de regels van de muzikant ter plekke worden bedacht.

Neal: ''Ayler heeft mij en velen met mij nieuwe mogelijkheden in muziek laten zien, maar ook in drama en in poëzie.''

Voordat Ayler die erkenning ten deel viel, moest hij hemel en aarde bewegen. En dat deed hij. Alle muziek die op de negen cd's is te horen, is zeer verontrustend. IJzingwekkend gegil komt uit zijn saxofoon, met een vibrato, die een kortsluiting in de hersenen veroorzaakt.

Alleen een aantal geestverwanten kon en wilden hem volgen, onder wie zijn broer Don Ayler, de in Nederland geboren violist Michel Samson, de bassist Mtawef Shaheed, pianist Cecil Taylor, bassist Gary Peacock en drummer Sunny Murray. Als Ayler in de bezetting met viool, gestreken bas en drums speelt, hoor je soms nauwelijks het verschil tussen de viool en de saxofoon, doordat Ayler een meester in de boventonen was. De flageoletten buitelen op en over elkaar heen als bij een kettingbotsing.

Zijn ouders hadden niet vermoed dat hun zoon tot een zo'n onconventionele einzelgänger zou uitgroeien. Hij oefende als klein jochie keurig iedere dag in zijn huis in

Cleveland, Ohio, onder de bezielende leiding van zijn vader. Hij bezocht een muziekschool, trad hier en daar op en werd al op zijn vijftiende ontdekt door Little Walter Jacobs, harmonicaspeler bij Muddy Waters.

Toen Ayler klaar was met school, ging hij voor drie jaar het leger in. Hij speelde in de Special Services Band, keurig in de maat. Maar in zijn vrije tijd luisterde hij naar Ornette Coleman en gebruikte diens ideeën in zijn eigen muziek. Misschien dat toen de bodem werd gelegd voor die buitensporige stijl die Ayler tijdens zijn verblijf in Europa zou ontwikkelen.

Hij reisde naar Parijs, waar hij ongeveer elke jamsessie bijwoonde die hij maar kon. Regelmatig werd hij van het podium gehoond. Ayler speelde geen akkoordwisselingen, hij kende ze niet en weigerde ze te leren. Talloze anekdotes zijn er over Ayler die aanschoof bij de band en alleen maar geluiden produceerde. ''Noten interesseren me niet,'' zei hij. Het ging hem om de overdracht van een universeel spiritueel bewustzijn.

Het kwam regelmatig voor dat wanneer Ayler begon te spelen, de pianist de klep van zijn piano sloot, de bassist zijn bas wegzette, de drummer zijn stokken neerlegde, en dat het stel vervolgens aan de bar ging zitten totdat Ayler uitgespeeld was. De saxofonist kreeg geen voet aan de grond in Frankrijk.

In Scandinavië ging het al niet veel anders. Ook daar bezocht hij met de saxofoon in de hand jamsessies. Keer op keer, wist het publiek niet wat het overkwam. Daar stond een tenorsaxofonist die met een riet voor een baritonsaxofoon een abstracte explosie van geluid tot ontploffing bracht.

''Kan hij ook normaal spelen?,'' was de vraag steeds. Dat kon hij, er waren genoeg getuigen die dat konden bevestigen. Was deze man gestoord, was deze extreme, keiharde, ontregelende manier waarop hij speelde een grap? Dat was het niet. Er waren ook genoeg getuigen die hem op verzoek zachtjes en ingetogen hadden horen spelen, en Parkers bebopsolo's hadden horen imiteren.

Toen hij terug was in Amerika, kreeg de jazzscene in Californië lucht van de jongen. Dat gold ook voor John Coltrane. Hij en Ayler ontwikkelden een innige vriendschap. Coltrane onderhield Ayler financieel, hij introduceerde hem bij Impulse records, maar hij koesterde ook een diepe bewondering voor Ayler.

Coltrane belde Ayler na het horen van diens muziekstukken Ghosts en Spiritual unity: ''Ik heb een album opgenomen en ik merkte dat ik net zoals jij speelde.'' Coltrane verwijst hier naar de opname van A love supreme, zijn meest baanbrekende elpee. Onzin, vond Ayler, ''je speelt als jezelf. Je voelt alleen precies wat ik ook voel en je schreeuwde om spirituele eenheid.''

Tja, als je die gesprekken zo leest tussen de saxofonisten, raak je het spoor al snel bijster. In het kistje is ook een onnavolgbare tekst van

Ayler gestopt. Over een toekomstige val van Babylon en een nieuw Jeruzalem. Ayler zag zichzelf in meerdere opzichten als een boodschapper van God. De witte, pigmentloze pluk in zijn baard was daar een bewijs van. Maar zomin als de muziek van Coltrane in termen van akkoordschema's of geloofsovertuigingen is uit te leggen, zomin is dat mogelijk bij de muziek van Ayler. Naar Albert Ayler luister je ook niet, zodra de kreten aan zijn saxofoon ontsnappen, reageert je hart.

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Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service (17 October, 2004.) - USA

The Legend: Albert Ayler

By Joe Gross

On the morning of Nov. 25, 1970, the body of Albert Ayler was found in the East River near Brooklyn's Congress Street Pier. The controversial jazz saxophonist was all of 34 years old.

The medical examiner's report suggested drowning — a likely suicide — and no autopsy was performed. But within weeks, rumors began to spread around New York's tightly knit free-jazz community. Some said that, before his death, Ayler had been missing for nearly three weeks and had been exhibiting signs of mental instability. A few contended that this leading light of the African-American "new thing" was shot by the police. Another black revolutionary silenced?

Here's the only thing we know about Nov. 25, 1970: It didn't happen overnight, and it didn't happen all at once, but on that day, Albert Ayler turned into an old-fashioned American legend.

A line in the sand of his own time, Ayler's music has become a jazz touchstone. Sounding like folk songs, marching bands and the freely blasted energy of life all at once, his music is now regarded as a root integer of the '60s avant- garde.

Ben Young, Dean Blackwood and Noel Waggener are three guys for whom the legend resonated. Infants or not yet alive when Ayler died, the three put together a small team of researchers, writers and designers and took the past 2 1/2 years to produce Holy Ghost, the first CD boxed set devoted to Ayler.

Financed by and released on Blackwood's Revenant Records label — an eclectic, boutique label specializing in carefully designed and packaged archival recordings of self-described "raw musics," ranging from the Stanley Brothers to Captain Beefheart — the long-rumored Holy Ghost eschews available recordings for 10 CDs of previously unavailable live sets, demos and interviews, shading in Ayler's previously underdocumented career.

The set includes a 200-page hard-cover book featuring tributes and essays by fellow musicians, biographical sketches and never-before-published photos. There are reproductions of a handwritten note, a photo, a small magazine and a dried dogwood flower, a symbol of the crucifixion, all of which are housed in a sturdy box, molded from a hand-carved original designed for this set.

Although Ayler doesn't have the name recognition of Charlie Parker or Miles Davis, this set is a big deal. His influence was broad, and none of these recordings has been previously available.

Legendary saxophonist John Coltrane said he listened to Ayler's music closely and formed an intense friendship with the younger man, enabling Ayler to obtain a contract with Coltrane's label. After 'Trane recorded the dense group improvisation Ascension, he said to Ayler, "I was playing just like you." (In turn, Ayler played at Coltrane's funeral, an electrifying performance included in somewhat muffled form on Holy Ghost.)

Anticipation is running high for this boxed set. Revenant is pressing up 15,000 copies of Holy Ghost.

Andee Connors owns and operates Aquarius Records, a San Francisco store known for its esoteric clientele and strong mail-order business. "There have been hints for a long time that it might be coming out some day," Connors says. "That will certainly help sales."

"Team Ghost," as the researchers are referred to in the liner notes, sifted through hours of tape, chased down recordings they weren't sure existed, conducted interviews, navigated a messy estate and designed dozens of graphics, all in the name of a guy whose musical extremity prompted fellow musicians to stop playing (often in disgust) when he took the bandstand.

How did these three do it? What is it about Albert Ayler that inspires such devotion?

In 2002, Blackwood, head of Revenant Records, was looking for a new project. Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues, his label's elaborate, seven-CD boxed set of the complete recording of bluesman Charlie Patton, was released the previous fall. (The set would win three Grammys in 2003.) It was time to start thinking about a follow-up. The Ornette Coleman box he'd always wanted to do wasn't quite ready for prime time, so he turned to Albert Ayler.

"I remember hearing Albert's stuff on a mix tape that someone gave me, and it really was of a different ilk," says Blackwood, who moonlights running the label during breaks from his day job as a lawyer at Dell Corp.

"You'd hear these songs, and you were sure that you'd heard them before," Blackwood says.

Just listen to any one of the versions of Ghost available on Holy Ghost. The song's head, perhaps based on a European folk melody, is astonishingly simple, a song you might whistle while raking leaves. The cymbals splash in, a bass string thrums, and then Ayler takes off into space honking, squealing, overblowing, totally free of time, rhythm and tempo. The band follows in Ayler's giant steps. By the end of the piece, the theme returns, bringing the listener back to a melody anyone can learn.

"It's as if he were tapping into some sort of collective musical memory," Blackwood says.

One of the reasons Ayler is so obscure is that, for years, his albums have wandered in and out of print. But Team Ghost wasn't interested in stuff that was already out there. They wanted the unreleased music.

Researcher Young — as a disc jockey for the Columbia University radio station WKCR, then as a reissue producer for Verve and RCA Records, and now as WKCR's director of broadcasting and operations — has spent much of his adult life chasing the memory of various jazz musicians. He was a high-school hipster in Nashville when he first heard of Ayler and was instantly drawn to his music.

By 1995, Young was convinced enough previously unheard Ayler material had been unearthed that more records could be made. After all, Ayler only produced a small pool of music in his lifetime. But record labels weren't interested until Young and Blackwood started planning the set in 2002.

"Initially, someone at WKCR put me in touch with Ben in connection with the Ornette project in 2001," Blackwood says. They soon realized that an Ayler project could be completed within a more finite time frame.

"Dean and I shared the feeling that you can't know enough about Ayler," Young says.

Blackwood readily acknowledges that Holy Ghost would have been impossible without Young. "He did all of the work," he says. "Ben was the driving force. He has this huge stockpile of radio interviews and research to draw from."

By early 2002, Blackwood and Young had drawn up a prospectus of Ayler recordings they knew existed or were rumored to exist, who possessed them and how likely the parties would be to let Team Ghost use them.

Young and his own gang — Carlos Case and Tom Greenwood, both of whom Young had worked with when he was in charge of Verve Records' research department — would usually make the initial contacts with the parties who had the recordings and do field interviews with book contributors. The whole thing was a bit like a worldwide scavenger hunt with dozens of clues and conflicting parties.

"Once Ben tracked someone down, I cinched the deals," Blackwood says. He made sure the rights were in order and the musicians who participated in the recording were paid.

It doesn't help that Ayler's estate is a legal miasma. Upon his death, Ayler left a father (Edward Ayler), a wife from whom he was separated (Arlene Ayler), two children (Desiree, a daughter with Arlene, and Curtis Roundtree, a son from a different relationship) and a girlfriend with whom he was artistically collaborating at the time of his death (Mary Maria).

He also left no will. "There are a lot of contestants to the Ayler estate," Young says.

Rights had to be negotiated, tapes cleaned up. Finnish radio provided 1962 recordings with the Herbert Katz Quintet, a solid if uninteresting Finnish group. The extraordinary-but-rough-sounding recordings of Ayler playing at Coltrane's funeral and Ayler playing with Cecil Taylor in 1962 were polished. At the last minute, Revenant found out that for 44 years someone had kept a tape of Ayler playing with the 76th Army Band and rushed to get it in the box.

Of course, there were tapes that Team Ghost couldn't get, avenues still closed to the public, pieces of Ayler's past still unearthed.

"They're kind of sore points," Young says. "As much work, if not more, was pumped into ones that didn't pay off." For example, Team Ghost wasn't able to shake loose the 1966 "Titans of the Tenor" concert with Coltrane.

Blackwood wanted Holy Ghost to be as definitive as possible: "We wanted to be exhaustive to the point that if we didn't have it, it was very unlikely it would ever come out," he says.

Young isn't as convinced. "There will be tapes flushed out of the underbrush once attention comes to this set," he says. "That's always the way it works. You do your best to be complete and then somebody pipes up at the end and says, 'I hear you're doing this complete thing. Guess what I have?'

"But I welcome that," he adds. "It's always nice to find something you didn't know about."

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The New York Times (24 October, 2004.) - USA

Made Him Wanna Holler

By Ben Ratliff

JAZZ musicians are often mythologized, but in the case of the tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, the effect is so extreme that he has become an abstraction, swathed in Baptist-church language, the revolutionary rhetoric of the mid-60's Black Arts movement, and hot-palmed record-collector desire. "Holy Ghost," a new boxed set of his work put out by the Revenant label, is his worshipful monument.

It is a black plastic box containing nine discs, a partial facsimile edition of an issue of "The Cricket," the magazine of which Amiri Baraka was one of the editors, and an oblong, hardcover, 208-page book of essays and data, tracking Ayler's life up, down and sideways. There are copies of a snapshot depicting the prepubescent Albert with saxophone and of a flyer from the nightclub Slug's along with a real pressed flower in a plastic sleeve. It feels funereal, like something that should be buried with the body. Or mutely symbolic, like some totem in a dream.

Ayler himself seems like dream material. In 1970, at 34, he was found drowned in New York's East River - it's still unknown whether it was suicide - after practicing eight years of a kind of jazz stripped of all its niceties, its complex rules of harmony and rhythm. As much as he loved Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, he apparently had no desire to learn how to improvise through chord changes, the most basic obligation of a jazz saxophonist.

So his songs, and his improvisations, finally tended to use basic, major-triad harmony. Anthems, hymns and marches often use major triads, too, and thereby he cracked a secret: he figured out a way to make music that sounded ancient and somehow inevitable.

The box set's accompanying book repeats one story, over and over again, with different names and places. It is about Ayler, in his early performing years, eagerly sitting in on a bandstand, following along for a few bars of the standard material the band is playing. (It's "Moanin'" in one anecdote, "How High the Moon," in another, "Billie's Bounce" in a third - but it doesn't matter.) And then Ayler explodes, in some mixture of rapture, one-upmanship and free-tonality improvisational zeal. He shrieks and cries through his instrument, and uses his one professional refinement - a big tone and vibrato learned from playing in R&B bands. The other musicians, or the promoter, or the fans drop their drinks, or stalk off stage, or drag Ayler away.

It sounds like an exaggeration, an idealization, some kind of special pleading. Or, again, like a dream: stepping up to a practiced bandstand and offering primitivism instead of professionalism is a little like the one about showing up to school with no clothes on. But Ayler probably knew why he was there; both his ruckus and his melodies make historical sense. He was under the trance of Ornette Coleman's first records, sensing the possibilities in jazz of looser tonal relationships, stronger folk elements, and wilder playing. He had been playing marches for three years, with the 76th United States Army band in Orléans, France. And he was - perhaps - starting to come undone with religious visions.

Ayler's acquaintances report that he talked a great deal about "the truth" and "holiness." He insisted that the music is out there, and musicians are just vessels. "You think it's about you?" he once asked Amiri Baraka, after reading his appraisal of someone-or-other's jazz. He spoke about visions, and once wrote them down in a letter to Mr. Baraka: "The Devil angel thrives off of uncleanliness, curse words, blasphemy and discord."

Ayler wasn't naïve. He was creating some crossing-point of gospel and shock, art-brut flung up to God; his technical ability may have been rudimentary, but he had a killer sense of how to spook jazz bohemians of the early 1960's down to the core. Even in jazz, there can be something beyond technique - some intuitive form of style - and Ayler had it.

The producers of "Holy Ghost" have prowled the margins of Ayleriana to put out material that isn't well-known and protected by license. The best of Albert Ayler? To me it is "Spiritual Unity" (1964, ESP); "The Hilversum Session" (1964, Coppens); "Albert Ayler Live in Greenwich Village" (1965-67, Impulse). What they've found isn't all good; with such slender technique, there are no guarantees. Let's say you are a Type-B Ayler appreciator, someone who doesn't actually feel that he was the Holy Ghost. How do you work through it?

There's some instructive juvenilia here: on a bonus disc, rehearsals of his Army band in 1960, with Ayler soloing ineptly during the big band standard "Leap Frog." There's a chilling recording of the concentrated little set Ayler played at Coltrane's memorial. And there are two entire discs of Ayler being interviewed. He's all sweetly credulous enthusiasm: his speaking voice exposes him. The conversations provide more details - his parents' illnesses, his pay scale ($10,000 for his final Impulse contract), endless homilies about the challenge to the avant-garde artist in society. But if you can get through them, someone should devote a nine-disk box set to you.

This Type-B Ayler appreciator really only wants to hear the best of the 1965-1967 period, when Ayler moved from a free, liquid concept of group improvisation toward the sound of a band repeating his national-anthem-like melodies, over and over and over, in a kind of fractured unison. There's a surfeit of it here, much of it with muffled sound.

And please, save me from the original demos behind the album "New Grass," his 1968 album of spiritual R&B cut with reputable session players - a record ultimately compromised by Impulse Records, which hired singers and musicians against Ayler's plan. But the demos here show that the album didn't start promisingly, either.

Here's the good news. At the end of disc one, and for nearly all of disc two, we get a sense of how Albert Ayler spent 1964. This is the music that approaches a state of grace. It is his trio with the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Sunny Murray, and they play the most extraordinary music: it begins with and returns to little motifs, but is essentially free jazz, a very early example of the real thing - long, exploratory solos of shapes and texture with no determined key, players moving in and out of a running stream.

And here's where I will join the mythmakers: these three musicians are in a trance. They make light, dancing music - Sunny Murray, in particular, made his cymbals sound like running water. (Around this time, he was seen onstage using knitting needles for sticks.) Mr. Peacock played all over his instrument in almost random patterns, coming down on a fat, resonant low E once in a while. But there is space in the music: if free jazz often suffers from an oppressive density, don't blame these father-figures.

Here, there's nothing gratuitous about Ayler's saxophone language. As he demonstrates in "Saints," he believed that there could be such a thing as a free-improvisation ballad. He doesn't clonk you over the head with what would become his sure tactics: volume, repetition, or the hint of old-time religion. That he played music on such a high level, then hardened it into a routine and finally lost his way, seems the saddest and most real story; much of the rest of the book of Ayler feels like apocrypha.

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The Chicago Tribune (24 October, 2004) - USA

Spirit of Ayler's music lives on in `Holy Ghost'

By Bill Meyer

Albert Ayler's death in 1970 at age 34 ended one of the most mercurial careers in jazz on a sour note. During the previous decade the saxophonist had exerted a profound impact on jazz, through his own recordings for the ESP and Impulse labels and through his close association with John Coltrane. But when his lifeless body was pulled from New York's East River on Nov. 25, 1970, Ayler had no record label and was estranged from his family and musical peers.

While the New York medical examiner's office simply stated that Ayler had drowned, associates such as saxophonist Charles Tyler and French concert promoter Daniel Caux deemed his death a suicide.

But today Ayler's music is very much alive. Not only do musicians such as Mars Williams, Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson -- who are too young to have seen Ayler play -- perform his compositions; they've incorporated his huge tone and high energy level into their own music. Last week Revenant Records released "Holy Ghost," a nine-CD boxed set of Ayler's music.

Revenant's last release, a collection of bluesman Charley Patton's complete recordings called "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues," won three Grammy awards in 2002, but "Holy Ghost" is even more impressive. Aside from one 1964 concert, none of "Holy Ghost" has been legally released, though some parts, such as Ayler's performance at Coltrane's funeral, have circulated among underground tape traders.

But Revenant President Dean Blackwood says not even bootleggers have had access to the recordings that bookend the set: Ayler's 1960 recording debut with a U.S. Army band, which appears on a brief 10th bonus CD, and his final recorded concert, which took place on July 28, 1970, in La Colle Sur Loup, France.

Impressive packaging

"Holy Ghost's" packaging is as impressive as its content. It comes enclosed in a faux-onyx replica of a hand-carved spirit box which, according to the project's art director Noel Waggener, is patterned on containers used by Pacific Northwestern Indian tribes to hold sacred possessions. In addition to the CDs, it includes a hardbound 208-page book, reproductions of contemporary fliers and pamphlets, and a dried flower.

A flower?

"The dried flower is a dogwood bloom," Waggener explained in an e-mail. "It is said that the cross Jesus was crucified on was made of a dogwood tree. The legend goes that after the crucifixion, dogwood trees would no longer grow strong enough to crucify a person on. Dogwood blooms thereafter grew stained with blood in the center and with holes punched into the ends of their petals to symbolize the nail holes in the cross."

The flower, like the box's title, underscores the deeply spiritual nature of Ayler's music. The saxophonist grew up in a devoutly Christian household in Cleveland, and that experience pervaded his music. Ayler's ululating solos crossed the utterances of worshipers speaking in tongues with the more profane, but equally ecstatic rhythm and blues honking he learned as a teen touring with harmonica player Little Walter.

Saxophonist Williams leads the group Liquid Soul, which combines jazz solos with contemporary urban rhythms. Since the mid-'90s he has also led Witches And Devils, which plays Ayler's compositions.

Speaking by telephone from his North Side home, Williams praised Ayler's "soulful, gospel-y melodies."

"They reach out in this prayerlike, folk song way that any person could sing," Williams says. "They were like prayers that reach deep into you soul and just grab you. He'd take these themes and use them as springboards into the free."

"Free," in Williams' parlance, refers to Ayler's improvisational methods. His music represented the next step in free jazz, which grew from Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Coltrane's rejection of bebop's structural restrictions.

Vandermark, a celebrated local saxophone and clarinet player who won a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1999, calls Ayler's music "a key breakaway from the harmonic basis of improvised music towards pure sound as a communicating force."

"The distance between his ideas and the expression of their content has been almost completely eliminated," Vandermark says. "His music couldn't exist in a conventional jazz framework, so he came up with a new set of expressionistic systems. To my mind, the fact that Ayler is not as well respected and known as Jackson Pollack points to a major discrepancy in the appreciation of improvised music as an art form."

Artist Pollack's drip-strewn canvasses were dubbed action paintings; Ayler played energy music. Mats Gustafsson, a Swedish reed player who helped secure some of "Holy Ghost's" music, says that energy was indivisible from Ayler's spiritually motivated urgency.

Emotional content

"That's the whole thing with Ayler, the emotional and the spiritual content that he's bringing in the music," Gustafsson said after a recent concert at the Empty Bottle. "It's so strong that you can't escape it."

The notions of freedom and spirituality that Ayler articulated with pieces titled "Universal Message" and "Universal Indians" transcended genre and sect. Alan Silva, who played bass with Ayler, says, "Albert was a messenger of the civil rights movement, the rights of religious people, the rights of Indians." Speaking from his home in Paris, Silva added, "He was exercising his First Amendment rights in the pursuit of art."

The boxed set illuminates every phase of Ayler's brief career. After leaving the Army, he moved to Scandinavia in 1962 to find compatible musicians and receptive audiences. He sounds cramped playing standards such as "Summertime" with the overly polite Finnish Herbert Katz Quintet. Sitting in with the Cecil Taylor trio in Denmark later that year, he sounds at home for the first time.

In 1964, Ayler moved to New York City and formed his first stable group with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray; these recordings represent his purest expression of passion and energy. Beginning in 1965, Ayler's trumpet- playing brother Donald became his principal collaborator. The brothers' music, which emphasized collective improvisations based on hymnlike melodies and manic marches, sounded like a space-age update of early New Orleans jazz.

Then Ayler signed with Coltrane's label, Impulse records, shortly after Coltrane's death in 1967, and his music changed dramatically. On New Grass, his third album for the label, the churning rhythms and Donald's buglelike calls were replaced by rock beats and bouncy songs with lyrics sung by Ayler and his new partner, Mary Maria. Holy Ghost's text documents the opprobrium that Ayler's peers heaped upon the record, but the set also includes raw demos for the sessions that suggest the record company toned down Ayler and Maria's millennial sentiments.

Silva, who played on the first two Impulse recordings, credits Ayler's creative restlessness with keeping him relevant.

"Albert said it in all of his works," he recalls. "The idea of transformation is inevitable in American art. It's what makes art American."

*

 

The Sunday Times (24 October, 2004) - UK

Pop CD of the Week:
ALBERT AYLER
Holy Ghost
Revenant RVN213

Alan Yentob’s recent BBC1 profile of John Coltrane followed the “visionary artist” template. Apparently, Coltrane delighted everyone for years playing My Favourite Things, went insane, started doing unpopular weird stuff and died. It’s convenient to think of a genius as mad. It relieves broadcasters of the responsibility of accommodating their innovations. The tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, whom Coltrane cited as an inspiration, also follows the one-size-fits-all mad-genius mode. He drowned in the East River in 1970, aged 34, and a 1966 BBC film of a London show was destroyed due to fears that his unfettered performance was too disturbing to broadcast. Ayler’s free-form style mixed bursts of pure chaos with the nursery-rhyme melodies of spirituals. His supporters see him as the creator of a new musical language. His detractors ask: “But could he play?” With nine CDs, a 200-page biography, facsimiles of fanzines and a pressed flower, Holy Ghost is the Sistine Chapel of box sets. It opens with Ayler in more conventionally melodic roles, backing better- known names, before settling into more than 10 hours of unreleased live performances and interviews, including a track recorded at Coltrane’s funeral. Live fast. Die young. Leave a beautiful box set. Five stars.

                                                                                                                                                               STEWART LEE

*

 

The Boston Globe (29 October, 2004) - USA

JAZZ NOTES
Box sets: five from the vaults
By Bill Beuttler

The autumn box set season is upon us, when jazz labels dig through their vaults and begin offering attractively packaged jewels in hopes of inspiring holiday gift-giving. Five such efforts to cross our desk recently are particularly noteworthy.
...

"Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost" (Revenant). This nine-disc collection -- the biggest, strangest set of the five -- consists of rare and unissued recordings by the free-jazz legend from 1962 to 1970. Included is a 1962 pairing with Cecil Taylor in Copenhagen; trio work with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray in New York in 1964; and Ayler's performance at the 1967 funeral of John Coltrane. Extras include two discs of sometimes bizarre interviews with Ayler, who seemed to suffer from religious mania toward the end of his short life (his body was fished from New York's East River in 1970, an apparent suicide at age 34); a 208-page hardbound book; and a peculiar assortment of memorabilia. Revenant doesn't quite toss in the kitchen sink, but close. It may be over the top for even most jazz buffs, but hardcore fans of Ayler and free jazz have been slavering for this set since word went out it was in the works. Based on a single-disc sampler sent out by Revenant, at least some of Ayler's musical explorations here are worth the excitement.

*

 

Billboard (30 October, 2004, p. 13) - USA

Jazz Notes
By Dan Ouellette

Ayler’s Passionate Blast From The Past

     The vibrato melody unravels into unfettered tendrils. All moorings cast adrift, the music sails into uncharted seas with sonic gusts and squeals.
     Avant-contemporary jazz at its most experimental?
     No. Actually, the jazz is a blast, literally, from the past, circa the ’60s, when truth-seeker Albert Ayler broke free from what he perceived were the shackles of modern jazz.
     Ayler’s music was underappreciated during his lifetime and has been vastly neglected since his death in 1970 at the age of 34. But the father of free jazz finally receives his due with the comprehensive nine-CD “Holy Ghost,” a remarkable collection of rare and unissued studio tracks, forgotten live recordings and interviews, which Austin-based Revenant Records has beautifully packaged into a deluxe onyx “spirit box.”
     “Holy Ghost” follows on the heels of Revenant’s acclaimed 2001 boxed set “Screamin’ & Hollerin’ the Blues—The Worlds of Charley Patton.”
     “It’s not so much that we seek out the projects,” label co-founder and owner Dean Blackwood says. “It’s more like they throw themselves at us. Resistance is futile. There are some artists we’re passionate about and whose story—in every sense of the word—has proved to be elusive. Ayler is one of these. He virtually stepped off the planet, seemingly set on forgetting everything he ever learned about how to properly play his instrument so he could channel symphonies to God on his horn.”
     Working closely with the Ayler family, Blackwood and field producer Ben Young spent three years compiling material. When asked if the set will instill a new appreciation of Ayler’s contribution to jazz, Blackwood responds, “His music still retains the genuine power to shock, confound and dazzle today. It still sounds radical and totally unhinged. I think it’s the latter—that unhinged quality—and ultimately a lack of contrivance in Al’s music that allow it to continue to resonate and keep from sounding dated.”
     In a 1964 Copenhagen radio interview with Ayler (included in the set), the saxophonist explained his strident, spiritual sensibility: “The music I’m playing now is the blues of all Americans . . . but it’s a different kind of blues. a new blues . . . This is the only way left for a musician to play because all other ways have been explored.”
     Ayler inspired not only out-leaning jazz saxophonists looking for adventurous means of expression, his music also fueled Paul McCartney’s passion to infuse Beatles music with new sounds during the band’s experimental years. In Barry Miles’ McCartney biography, “Many Years From Now,” he notes that the Beatle was listening to a lot of avant- garde jazz in 1966, including such artists as Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman.
     “[But] Paul particularly liked Albert Ayler’s free-form tenor saxophone playing; sweeping screams and wails,” Miles writes. “He brought some of Ayler’s albums and enjoyed the puzzled look on George Martin’s face when he . . . filled the room with Albert’s honks and squeals.”

*

 

24 Heures (31 October, 2004) - France

Prophète du jazz, Albert Ayler ressuscite enfin

Un luxueux coffret rend hommage au saxophoniste mort en 1970, à 34 ans.

Par Luca Sabbatini

«Mort par noyade», concluait à l’époque le rapport du médecin légiste. C’était le 25 novembre 1970. Albert Ayler, saxophoniste iconoclaste et défenseur de la cause des Noirs américains, venait d’être repêché dans les eaux glacées de l’East River new-yorkaise, après trois semaines de dérive. Le corps méconnaissable, boursouflé, avait la teinte délavée des cadavres en décomposition aquatique.

Suicide? Assassinat? Accident? Nul ne le saura jamais. Ce qui est sûr, c’est qu’il y a trois décennies, s’achevait à 34 ans, de manière sordide, brutale et mystérieuse une vie tout entière placée sous le signe de l’amour. Amour de la musique, mais aussi adoration quasi mystique pour le Créateur et ses créatures.

Sainte trinité

Véritable acte de foi, un luxueux coffret ressuscite aujourd’hui le Saint-Esprit d’une trinité du jazz moderne dont le Père s’appelait John Coltrane et le Fils Pharoah Sanders. La métaphore biblique peut paraître excessive, mais elle était revendiquée par le saxophoniste lui-même. Il y avait du saint François chez cet homme doux, au regard lointain. L’éloquence de ses prêches, la jubilation de ses improvisations auraient converti le plus sourd des oiseaux. Albert Ayler ne jouait pas du saxophone; il l’incarnait, lui, son souffle et son instrument.

Tout au long des neuf CD d’enregistrements live captés entre 1962 et 1970 dans un son presque toujours étonnant de clarté, il faut écouter avec attention la plainte extatique d’Albert Ayler. Sorte de hululement continu, son jeu à la prodigieuse intensité évoque tour à tour le chant des baleines, une version sonore du Cri de Munch, un rituel de peuplade primitive ou un appel de l’au-delà.

C’est parfois éprouvant, souvent envoûtant, toujours incroyablement engagé. Rarement la musique improvisée aura atteint pareille incandescence. Le ténor d’Albert Ayler semble cracher des flammes à chaque phrase. Des flammes purificatrices, qui balaient toute la vulgarité et la laideur du monde.

Autour de lui, on retrouve quelques grands libérateurs du jazz, du pianiste Cecil Taylor au trompettiste Don Ayler, le propre frère du saxophoniste.

Incantations et prières

Hymnes jubilatoires, fanfares tarabiscotées ou marches enthousiastes, les compositions d’Albert Ayler forment une ronde de la vie et de la mort, où prennent place mères et enfants (Mothers, Children), esprits et fantômes (Spirits, Ghosts), prophètes et sorciers (Prophet, The Wizard), incantations et prières (Bells, Truth is Marching In, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe, Oh! Love of Life).

Le mysticisme du Coltrane de A Love Supreme n’est bien sûr jamais loin. Mais alors que celui-ci s’oublie dans des abîmes de contemplation et de méditation, Albert Ayler reste en permanence guidé par une joie panique et torturée, un appétit vital insatiable qui libère d’immenses flots d’énergie.

Inlassablement remis sur le métier, ses thèmes fétiches se prêtent aux plus étourdissantes métamorphoses, ouvrent des espaces sonores alors à peu près inexplorés.

Il faut du courage (et beaucoup de technique instrumentale) pour maintenir une constante qualité musicale avec des improvisations coulées dans la chaux vive, éruptions volcaniques où les notes perdent leur identité propre pour se fondre dans une masse torride et furieuse. Avec d’autres improvisateurs, l’auditeur crierait vite au «n’importe quoi»! Chez Albert Ayler, la conviction, l’urgence deviennent palpables, se transmettent infailliblement à l’auditeur.

Outre sept heures d’enregistrements rares ou inédits, le label texan Revenant offre deux disques d’interviews d’Ayler ou de ses proches. Plusieurs documents — un livre richement illustré de 208 pages, une photo du musicien jeune, la copie d’une note manuscrite, des fac-similés de publications d’époque — complètent le programme strictement musical. Bref, cette somme rend enfin justice à l’un des grands visionnaires de la musique. Albert Ayler. Que son nom soit sanctifié. Que son règne vienne.

*

 

culturevulture.net (October, 2004)

Holy Ghost

Albert Ayler

By Phil Freeman

     First, there’s the box – the sheer physicality of the thing. It’s slightly smaller than a vinyl album, 9 1/2 inches square and about three inches thick, made of heavy black plastic molded from a hand-carved wooden original. Taking it off the shelf requires bracing oneself, a little; its blunt heft surprises every time.
     Within the box: a hardcover book, more than 200 pages long, with explanatory essays by Amiri Baraka, Valerie Wilmer and other chroniclers of the American free jazz scene, the New York scene of the 1960s in particular; reproductions of poetry and jazz magazines dealing with, or reacting to, Albert Ayler’s music; club flyers advertising his shows at legendary Greenwich Village venue Slugs Saloon; a photo of Ayler as a child; and a pressed flower in a small plastic envelope. Oh, and ten CDs of music.
     Albert Ayler was a divisive figure, even within the “New Thing” of the 1960s, which itself drew stark lines between the jazz mainstream and a future of freedom. Between 1964 - when his first American album, Spiritual Unity, was released on the tiny ESP label – and his mysterious death in 1970, he explored the outermost reaches of the saxophone, often unleashing squalls of sound closer in spirit to lightning strikes than music as even adventurous listeners knew it. The fact that respected figures like John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor admired his work, and said so publicly, only served to make his iconoclasm more controversial.
     Ayler’s melodies were singsong, frequently based on or inspired by pre-jazz musics and principles of collective improvisation, rather than the soloist-with-backing-ensemble idea that had taken over jazz since the bebop era. He played spirituals with a raw, skronking tone, tearing into the simple tunes like a wolf shredding meat from a bone. He used unorthodox instrumentation in his groups, incorporating harpsichord and violin when others were sticking with the tried-and-true saxophone, piano, bass and drums.
     It wasn’t noise for its own sake, though. Far from it. Ayler’s command of his horn was masterful – he could make it do anything he wanted. As the essays in the book explain, he was a childhood sensation in his native Cleveland, leaving as a teenager to play in R&B groups and performing admirably with his Army unit’s band. (One of the CDs in the box contains two previously unheard recordings of Ayler as a soloist with that band.) Like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Ayler sought to expand the range of acceptable tonalities, on the saxophone and in general. He wanted to show that jazz could be much more than its fans had previously believed it to be.
     The first seven discs in Holy Ghost travel chronologically through Ayler’s history and development as a musician. He’s first heard in 1962, as a guest with the Herbert Katz Quintet in Helsinki. He’s playing jazz standards, and taking some liberties with them, but not doing much that would shock a Coltrane fan of the time. The next track, though, comes from five months later, and it’s the first of many treasures this box contains – Ayler and Cecil Taylor’s trio blasting through the pianist’s “Four” for 22 minutes. (A few years ago, Revenant released Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, a 2-CD document of Taylor’s trio at the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen.) This Ayler-Taylor summit was recorded for Danish television; the video has been tragically lost, but the audio is impressive enough.
     Holy Ghost progresses, with performances from 1964, when Ayler was first making his name in America; homecoming dates at Cleveland club La Cave; and numerous European performances including a show taped in France only weeks before his death. There are some landmark jazz events included, like Ayler’s appearance at John Coltrane’s funeral mass and the aforementioned Cleveland show, which pairs Ayler with saxophonist Frank Wright, who later became a cult figure himself.
     The seventh disc, which includes the French performances, finds Ayler incorporating gospel more explicitly than before. His music has become more disciplined (he’d recently experimented with a poorly received, rock-oriented studio album, New Glass), and he’s at the top of his game. These songs, especially when heard alongside the recent Nuits De La Fondation Maeght 1970 CD, make his early demise that much sadder. He sounds on the edge of consolidating and focusing his ideas into an approach that could have blown jazz open, making freedom an option for everyone, the way he’d been trying to do all along.
     Other less storied but more musically exciting highlights are a guest spot with Pharoah Sanders and one with a group led by Ayler’s brother Donald. On this latter, two-song performance, the dodgy sound quality adds a visceral impact – the horns blare like car alarms over an ensemble that’s flailing wildly, yet sometimes barely audible. The Sanders track, by contrast, was professionally recorded, and its release is both exciting and long overdue.
     Nearly all of the music on discs 1-7 (and the bonus army-band disc) is live, and much of it is previously unreleased. But discs 8 and 9 take this approach to its furthest extreme, containing no music, only interviews with Ayler and a few of his contemporaries and collaborators. Even devoted fans may find this material over-the-top and unnecessary.
     Many boxed sets attempt to compile an artist’s work, mixing well-known selections with rarities to justify the purchase price. Holy Ghost does no such thing – it’s a gift to the already initiated, virtually impenetrable to the newcomer. Anyone looking to discover Albert Ayler would do well to start with his studio albums, most of which are in print and readily available. The people Holy Ghost is made for knew they were going to buy it as soon as the first rumors trickled onto avant-garde jazz bulletin boards.
     Indeed, the almost religious veneration of Ayler this box embodies, as exemplified by the two CDs of interviews, the pressed flower, the reproduction photograph and all the rest of the non-musical foofaraw, is somewhat problematic. The overkill of Holy Ghost’s design makes it self-selecting, the relative bargain price notwithstanding. (Had a major label put this out, rather than Revenant, it would likely have cost twice what it does). Having it on the shelf, in all its weighty, obsessive glory, implies that one is the kind of music fan who enjoys this sort of thing. Some people are comfortable with that, and others aren’t, and both types know who they are.

*

 

LA Weekly (4 November, 2004) - USA

The Sound of Truth

Albert Ayler

By Greg Burk

Albert Ayler was a good golfer. He was an aficionado of marches. He was a God nut who believed that the patch of non- pigmented skin on his chin indicated the touch of the Holy. He was found drowned, circumstances unknown, in New York’s East River in 1970 at the age of 34.

And he shattered the improvisational music of the 1960s. Using the thickest reeds, the loudest mouthpieces, and a voluminous knowledge of jazz saxophone’s history and techniques, Ayler birthed an enormous, all-enveloping free-jazz sound that embodied the aspirations and frustrations of his chaotic generation. His simple riffs derived from old-time church traditions; his textural flights strained for a future we may never reach. Though many thought him a fake, he was instantly recognized and emulated by far more established players such as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

Holy Ghost, a landmark new Albert Ayler box set from Revenant, scores major pluses and minor minuses. On the one hand, you get a wonderful Ayler biography from its 200-plus-page hardbound book (by Val Wilmer, Amiri Baraka, Ben Young et al.), which stands as the best work on its subject. On the other, what you don’t get from the box overall, despite its seven CDs of music and two of interviews, is the best experience of Ayler’s essence.

Which is fine. Holy Ghost is a collection of rough rarities, valuable mainly for historical insight; it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. The few who already worship at Ayler’s altar will absolutely require it, and at only about $100, it’s a steal. Just don’t start here if you haven’t heard him, because you might wonder why Revenant threw such a big party.

Here’s the thing about Ayler: The way he was recorded was so important, and he was rarely recorded right. Again and again, the book recounts testimonials from witnesses shocked and changed firsthand as his omnidirectional torrent, shivering their guts and sometimes even cracking their ceilings, poured over them. So it’s appropriate that most Ayler recordings were live, including the peaks, such as the 1964 Copenhagen concert currently issued as Vibrations (where you can hear the engineer frantically re-skewing his levels as the dynamic music dips and crests). Less appropriate were the sketchy miking resources available under such conditions. While surround-sound would have been a godsend, in those days you were lucky if you got stereo — though fate dealt aces in the case of the ESP disc Prophecy, on which Ayler’s playful pingponging between two microphones makes for the truest document of his tenor sound that’s come down to us.

One of Holy Ghost’s big bonuses is 44 additional minutes recovered from that same 1964 night at New York’s Cellar Café, heretofore circulated only in sonically inferior editions. Another great find is a set from earlier in the Copenhagen stand. Both, in addition to their fresh aural impact, feature Ayler’s most tuned-in partners: the humming, thrashing, subterranean drummer Sunny Murray and the penetrating, challenging bassist Gary Peacock. And in Copenhagen, cornetist Don Cherry, the new music’s farthest-traveling ambassador, provides the same kind of foilwork that had helped spread the legend of Ornette Coleman.

To say that the less holistic remainder of the music (strings dominate the mix in some places, drums in others; much is muffled) is only history would be to undervalue it. 1962 Finnish cuts show Ayler could play pretty damn straight when the occasion demanded. The same year, he virtually meets his maker in the person of pianist Cecil Taylor. He bounces off some sympathetic bumpers, including Beaver Harris, Milford Graves and Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums); Bill Folwell, Richard Davis and Sirone (bass); Frank Wright and Pharoah Sanders (sax); and of course his mentally unstable brother, trumpeter Don Ayler, whose 1969 Town Hall turn as a leader established a thrilling apotheosis of free noise. The box doesn’t shrink from Albert’s unhinged R&B mistakes of 1970, which hint that the end is near. And the interviews establish that if he was a huckster, he was a huckster for the Truth, always sincere.

As you claw through the gorgeous packaging and fetishistic inserts of this sturdy but non-utilitarian plastic “spirit box,” you may feel like a miner on a mission. Just remember that you will find gold.

*

 

Le Nouvel Observateur (4 November, 2004) - France

Albert Ayler, le revenant

By Bernard Loupias

Le label Revenant, qui avait déjà consacré un coffret pharaonique au bluesman Charley Patton, érige cette fois un monument à la gloire du plus étrange des musiciens du free jazz des années 1960.

Dans les années 1960, sur son campus californien, John Fahey passait pour un sacré excentrique. Quand tout le monde se laissait pousser les cheveux, gobait du LSD en écoutant du rock psychédélique, ce type vêtu comme un clergyman se trimballait tout le temps avec des 78-tours de bluesmen oubliés ou des disques de Varèse ou de Boulez. Ce guitariste génial, mort en 2001, auteur d’une flopée d’albums éblouissants, n’aimait que ce qu’il appelait les «musiques crues» (raw music), où il devinait une honnêteté fondamentale. Avec son héritage, plutôt que de se payer une maison, ce fauché proverbial préféra fonder le label Revenant pour éditer du gospel antédiluvien, de la bluegrass obscure ou du Cecil Taylor. Mais son coup de maître restera l’invraisemblable coffret que, juste avant sa mort, il élabora à la gloire de son idole, Charley Patton, un des pères du Delta Blues. Une splendeur: trois bons kilos sur la balance, boîte toilée de vert, lettrage doré, deux livres (dont la thèse de musicologie de Fahey), les pochettes de tous les 78-tours de Patton en fac-similé, etc.

Aujourd’hui Dean Blackwood, son ami et avocat, poursuit l’aventure de Revenant avec un nouveau monument consacré à Albert Ayler, le plus irrécupérable des musiciens du free jazz. Dans un boîtier de plastique noir, des affichettes de concerts, des photos de famille, des magazines en fac-similé, une fleur porte-bonheur, neuf CD (deux d’entretiens et sept de musique inédite, dont la rencontre Ayler-Cecil Taylor en 1962 à Copenhague et ce que le saxophoniste joua lors des obsèques de Coltrane!), un extraordinaire livre de 208 pages avec notamment des textes d’Amiri Baraka (ex-LeRoi Jones) et de deux journalistes français: Marc Chaloin, qui consacre un texte définitif aux années européennes d’Ayler, et Daniel Caux, l’homme qui avait invité le saxophoniste à se produire aux Nuits de la Fondation Maeght à Saint-Paul-de- Vence en juillet 1970 et en profita pour l’interviewer pour France-Culture - interview que l’on retrouve ici. Bref, une folie exemplaire à une époque où les comptables dirigent les maisons de disques...

Tout le monde se souvient, dit-on, de ce qu’il faisait quand il a appris la nouvelle de l’assassinat de John F. Kennedy. Je ne connais pas un amateur de jazz qui ne se souvienne tout aussi précisément du choc qu’il a ressenti en entendant pour la première fois la musique d’Albert Ayler, ce Lautréamont de la note bleue, retrouvé mort à 34 ans, le 25 novembre 1970, dans les eaux glacées de l’East River, quelques mois à peine après son ultime triomphe à la Fondation Maeght. D’ailleurs, comment oublier ce son énorme doté d’un vibrato tout aussi impressionnant, ces réminiscences de ritournelles enfantines, de musiques de parades néo-orléanaises, de marches militaires, voire de sonneries de chasse à courre, qui soudain basculaient dans l’inconnu, dans un orage de clameurs célestes, un maelström d’anches sifflantes chevauchant une houle de cymbales et de peaux... Devant cette musique inouïe, on oscille toujours entre jubilation et terreur sacrée, colère ou extase, en tout cas malheur aux tièdes!

Ayler et son quintet se sont produits pour la première fois à Paris, Salle Pleyel, le 13 novembre 1966. Ce fut un scandale terrible. Si le concert avait lieu demain, ce serait pareil. Trente-huit ans après, la musique d’Ayler ne passe toujours pas. Sans doute parce qu’elle plonge ses racines les plus secrètes dans les transes de ces églises noires où des preachers enflammés appellent l’Esprit sur leurs fidèles. D’où croyez-vous que viennent les titres des thèmes d’Ayler - «Spirits», «Holy Spirits» ou «Prophecy»? La puissance de conversion de cette musique spirituelle, Daniel Caux l’a expérimentée. Elle a changé sa vie: «Fin 1965, j’ai acheté l’album "Bells", que j’ai écouté en boucle un mois durant. C’était si puissant que je n’ai pas vu - j’étais alors peintre - de possibilité pour moi de produire quelque chose d’aussi intense. Et j’ai arrêté la peinture.»

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Holy Ghost reviews - continued

 

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