Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Albert Ayler: Spiritual Unity

In the so-called world of "avant-garde" or "free" jazz, there was probably no one freer than tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler.  Born in Cleveland in 1936, Ayler first developed professionally in Europe, where he had served, as so many jazz musicians did, in the military.  His earliest recordings came out of Denmark and, in 1964, he returned to New York and formed a trio with bassist Gary Peacock (best known for his work in the Keith Jarrett trio, specializing in standards, with the renowned pianist and the remarkable drummer Jack DeJohnette) and drummer Sunny Murray, who may have been the freest drummer in jazz, coming first to attention with Cecil Taylor.  Ayler was hailed for his innovations by John Coltrane, who was clearly influenced by the former in his work, especially from the 1965 album Meditations onward, and by the sadly underappreciated Eric Dolphy, who said Ayler was the best sax player he knew.

Their 1964 album, Spiritual Unity, the first release of the iconoclastic ESP-Disk label, is a fantastic document of Ayler's self-described "energy music."  Freed of dependence on chord changes and standard timekeeping, the trio was an example of how absolute freedom (well, outside of the basic head or melody statement offered in a given piece) can work when the players are sympathetic to each other as well as independently playing whatever moves them on their instrument.

Peacock manages to provide a foundation without a steady rhythm or pulse, but his playing does keep the sound anchored, even as explores a wide tonal range on the bass.  Murray, eerily humming or moaning throughout, which adds an air of mystery, foreboding, or a strange feeling of joy (depending on the listener's take) also employs a great variety of percussive elements, none of it involving rolls, hard cracks of the snare, or aggressive ride cymbal playing.  Instead, he plays impressionistically and uses seemingly all parts of his kit, especially a spreading cymbal sound, to create with Peacock lots of space for the leader's playing.  For something this "free" the rhythm section is amazingly grounded without being restricted to a defined sense of time.

Ayler, as he nearly always did, dominates the proceedings, largely because of his massive, powerful sound on the saxophone, assisted by the hardest plastic reed he could get.  This not only allowed him tremendous volume, but an expansive vibrato that made his playing instantly recognizable (not that this was considered a good thing by many.)  Known as an intensely charismatic, spiritual and eccentric person, Ayler was convinced that he was on a God-given mission to change the world through music.  This might not have seemed that "far out" in the "far out" Sixties, but the sheer conviction he possessed is palpably heard in his music, especially on Spiritual Unity, where he finds the right compatriots to craft his message.

Ayler's most  well-known composition, "Ghosts," is given two variations here, the second twice as long as the first (and Ayler soloing for much longer than on the first version), and it is the best example of his approach of using simple melodies, seemingly drawing from spirituals, pre-1930 New Orleans-style jazz, marches, and rural folk, to open a piece before launching into the totally free soloing that ran the gamut of expressive honking, screaming, wailing, squealing and, occasionally, a beautiful clear-toned phrase that could remind listeners that Ayler was perfectly capable of playing "in the tradition" if he chose to.

Actually, Albert Ayler was more "in the tradition" than people gave him credit for, if we allow for the fact that "in the tradition" can mean taking earlier aspects of the music, applying new ideas, and then creating a hybrid that celebrates the best of what jazz can be.  Far more than merely high-volume screaming, Ayler crafted a totally unique sound that took "free" jazz to the limits.

At under 30 minutes and because of the empathy among the musicians that was fully realized in the title, Spiritual Unity is probably the best place for the uninitiated to start with Ayler.  While his music is invariably described as "difficult," the best piece of advice on how to listen to it was offered by him and his trumpeter brother, Donald:  try to listen to the sound and not the notes.  In other words, don't get caught up in intellectualizing the music from a structural point of view.  Instead, focus on the emotion embodied in the playing and let it carry you as far as you are willing to go.

For those willing to go along for the ride, the music of Albert Ayler, especially up through 1967 and the album Love Cry, can be a powerful and affecting experience.  Disappointed that his message of music as the harbinger of a new, peaceful age was not reaching larger audiences, Ayler redirected his efforts towards a more commercial sound driven by funk, electric guitar, and "hippie" lyrics and vocals by his girlfriend Mary Parks (known as Mary Maria.)  That proved to be unsuccessful also and, just as Ayler was starting to move back toward the free jazz sound that made his name (if not his fame), he disappeared in November 1970 and was found floating in the East River, a death usually attributed to suicide, though some believe he was murdered or perhaps fell in the river accidentally.

An early death often drives a mystique that can overshadow the work the person did, but in Ayler's case, the work speaks for itself.  A better introduction to that work cannot be found than Spiritual Unity.

Albert Ayler Trio:  Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk)

1.  Ghosts: First Variation  5:14
2.  The Wizard  7:23
3.  Spirits  6:48
4.  Ghosts: Second Variation  10:02

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