This version of Spirits is the only one to challenge the original titling of the four tracks on the album, suggesting that ‘Saints’ should be retitled ‘Prophecy’. Sean Wilkie thinks otherwise and sent me the following explanation of his reasoning.
In Praise of Saints
Saints is a significant piece in Albert Ayler’s early oeuvre. It’s one of only three tunes on the most-widely-known version of the Spiritual Unity album and one of the three tunes composed by the saxophonist on the Spirits album, according to a general consensus (that Witches and Devils was composed by Norman Howard).
When I recently purchased Quartets 1964, Spirits to Ghosts Revisited, in the excellent ezz-thetics Revisited series by Hat Hut Records, I was puzzled to find the earliest-known recording of Saints re-named. Puzzled; for Saints is not Prophecy, nor Prophecy, Saints. The album of original material recorded by Albert Ayler in February 1964 – Spirits (which many of us know as Witches and Devils) - is one of the few albums of his upon all of whose song-titles we can rely. It is mistaken to think that its version of Saints is a mis-labelled performance of Prophecy; for this tune is demonstrably the same as all the other versions of Saints. Moreover, Hat Hut renamed neither of the other recordings of Saints to be found on their ezzthetics Revisited albums.
Albert Ayler recorded Saints on four occasions in 1964; each time, accompanied on drums by Sunny Murray. (A final recording, once again with Murray, and made at the Village Gate in March 1965, is presumed lost.)
(1) Saints, 24/2/64, on Spirits (aka Witches and Devils) with Henry Grimes (b) Norman Howard (tp).
(2) Saints, 14/6/64, on Albert Smiles With Sunny (re-issued on Holy Ghost, and now on Prophecy Revisited) with Gary Peacock (b).
(3) Spirits (sic), [aka Saints], 10/7/64, on Spiritual Unity [common variant] with Gary Peacock (b).
(4) Saints, 10/9/64, for Danish radio (and now on European Recordings Autumn 1964 Revisited) with Gary Peacock (b), Don Cherry (crt).
Each of these recordings begins with the same short tune, played twice on the saxophone with sparse, responsive accompaniment from the other players. There is no obvious pulse and the tempo is mournful, serious. The melody is rendered reasonably accurately in the sheet music section in this site, and may help the reader, although I think the two semi-quavers on the second beat of the fourth bar are G and F, rather than E and D.
Saints was an effective vehicle for improvisation, to judge by these recordings. While preserving the doleful atmosphere, the group nevertheless achieve intense peaks on (4): by contrast, the sparse and skeletal (3) helped to demonstrate the breadth of Ayler’s palette to listeners arriving via Spiritual Unity, disabusing them of the stereotype of ‘free jazz’ as mostly non-stop high-octane screaming. I shall say more about (2) later.
It is also relatively easy to avoid miring Saints in the controversies arising from the inconsistencies of the published titles of the saxophonist’s tunes. There is only one recording, (3), in which Saints is incorrectly titled; and only one recording of a different tune mis-labelled as Saints - a live recording of Vibrations, from Club Montmartre, Copenhagen in September 1964.
The melody of Saints consists of a descending sequence of three descending three-note phrases, followed by a rising response-phrase in its fourth bar. I will refer to this as the melodic cell of Saints. Each of its four recorded versions begin with two renditions of this cell, both quite faithful to the melody: the earlier recordings of the tune also feature a third rendition, during which a greater liberty is taken with it. On Spiritual Unity, this third rendition is both delayed and incomplete.