Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Albert Ayler: Spirits Rejoice

This entry is in response to the death on 19 April of Bernard Stollman, the attorney who founded ESP-Disk in response to hearing the amazing Albert Ayler perform live in 1964 and told him he was founding a label and wanted the tenor sax player to be his first artist.

Stollman, whose first release on ESP-Disk was actually a record about Esperanto, the universal language that has never caught on, liked to advertise that with his label, "the artists alone decide what you hear on their ESP-Disk."  And, however true that may have been, the label recorded some of the most expressive and off-putting (to most ears) of the so-called free jazz players from the middle and late sixties.  Ayler was perhaps the most notorious of them.

Stollman, however, was roundly criticized from musicians who recorded for the label and found themselves receiving little or no royalties and having no control over their music.  At the same time, the label made so little money that it was closed after about a decade, though revived again in 2005.  This version of Spirits Rejoice was issued in 2012 with a new design and layout and remastering.

Recorded at Judson Hall in New Tork on 23 September 1965, Spirits Rejoice is a prime example of Ayler's peak ecstatic phase, in which the songs largely revolve around spiritual themes exemplified by references to martial, New Orleans, R&B and other genres.  In a rare occurrence, another sax player, altoist Charles Tyler, recorded with Ayler, whose brother Donald also marks his debut as a rather raggedy, but very emotional, trumpeter.

The three horns are generally either playing the strangely uplifting themes or tearing into powerful solos, but they sound quite harmonic in the former, while moving in different directions, but with an ear to each other, into the outer limits of jazz on the latter.

Meanwhile, the remarkable Sunny Murray, eerily moaning most of the way through, plays his drums with the kind of meterless freedom that allows the soloists to play however they'd like, while keeping a sense of order to the proceedings.

The drummer is joined by bassists Henry Grimes and Gary Peacock, who are often not heard well in the mix unless soloing, even with a good remastering job.  This is a bit of a shame because both played often with Ayler and knew how to use their instruments, particularly Peacock, in the service of the music.

On at least one piece, "Angels," Ayler pairs up with the much older harpsichordist Call Cobbs, whose instrument was often used in pop, rock and jazz in the Sixties and sounds quaint, yet oddly appealing.  The again, hearing enough of Ayler's music and its obsession with spiritual concerns, Cobbs' playing does have an uncanny way of harmonizing with the somewhat maudlin melody of the piece.

Through Bernard Stollman and ESP-Disk, much of Ayler's best and most challenging work was released (even if Ayler received very little money for his work, if the accusations against Stollman are true) and we are fortunate to have the documentation of music from one of jazz's most intriguing musicians.  Throughout, Ayler's huge tone, melodic simplicity, utter sincerity, and his frenetic and fantastic solo work present him as one of the era's most distinctive performers.

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