A Bouquet for Albert
Saxophonist Jackie McLean coined an imperative in an interview once that when paraphrased became a prescient reminder to jazz fans - “give them their flowers while they’re still here.”
He was referring to the tendency for important figures in the music to fall by the cultural wayside and only receive their due accolades after death. It’s long been physically impossible to make this a reality in Albert Ayler’s case; he died in November of 1970. But Revenant’s Holy Ghost project does practically everything humanly possible to rectify the wrong. Housed in a stout box pressed from heavy black plastic to resemble an ornately carved onyx box, the set offers an unprecedented wealth of Ayler music, reportage, insight and memorabilia.
Ayler still carries a prevailing iconoclastic image. His persona is often clothed in the attire of the outsider, unfathomable and threatening to the status quo - not of this world. In another controversial allegory he was the Holy Ghost to the Father and Son, John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, respectively. One of the coups of jazz was the appropriation of European instruments as a means of African-American expression. A process Frank Lowe once equated with translating his grandma’s field holler through his tenor saxophone. Ayler did it one better by additionally annexing European folk themes as a basis for his own explorations into Great Black Music.
The set’s various written commentaries document Ayler’s struggles while finding acceptance for his art, but they also contest the romantic notion of the saxophonist as someone completely ostracized by the jazz establishment. Edifying anecdotes reveal that expatriate jazz royalty like Dixieland clarinetist Albert Nicholas, and swing-era saxophonists Don Byas and Illinois Jacquet were among Ayler’s admirers. While Albert’s path in life was far from easy, he did have unexpected friends to encourage him along the way. Much is made of his eccentric personality and his roots in the church, both musically and ideologically. Five separate essays including an illuminating survey of Ayler’s Army years by French writer Michel Chaloin and dozens of rare photographs - color, monochrome and silk-screened - pack the pages of the cloth-bound hardback book.
The book also contains two appendices, personal testimonials from a cadre of associates in Ayler’s musical orbit, a detailed session synopsis and biographies of all sidemen included in the set, complete with snapshots. Examinations of Ayler’s gear (he favored a Selmer tenor sax and a plastic Fibercane reed) and an exhaustive concert registry complete the package. The latter section recounts a number of eye-popping rendezvous that escaped the reach of tape machines (i.e., Ayler jamming with Rashaan Roland Kirk, and sitting in with the early-'60s Thelonious Monk Quartet). Nestled deeper in the box is a facsimile issue of Cricket, an early-'60s black music/free jazz zine (unfortunately parsed down to abridged digest size and four of the original articles). Other prized accoutrements include: A snapshot of Ayler age 12 with alto; a hotel note written to a friend; a flier from an Ayler gig at Slug's Saloon; a mimeographed pamphlet of poetry by Paul Haines; even a dried flower from a dogwood tree (a talisman of Ayler’s) preserved in a Mylar sleeve. Calling this package a bounty-brimming treasure chest doesn't even come close to doing it justice.
With these impressive trappings accounted for, the true manna of the set lies in the music. Much of the material previously made the rounds clandestinely as part of a disc-trading “tree” community on the web. In addition, Ayler Records released a disc's worth of music in 2002 as The Copenhagen Tapes. But the bulk of recordings have heretofore not circulated commercially on a large scale. Recording quality varies quite markedly, though the source materials have been scrubbed to the point where virtually everything in the set is audible. Given the wildly varying histories and circumstances behind many of the tapes, it’s a minor miracle that everything sounds as good as it does. The gamut runs from Ayler’s first recordings in 1960 (supplanting his previously regarded inaugural session by nearly two years) to his last in 1970.
Ayler’s first recording session is on the set’s unpublicized 10th disc. It features him as soloist in the company of the 76th A.G. Army Band, September of 1960, smack in the middle of his stint as an enlisted man. The tape jacket, reproduced on the cardboard disc sleeve, lists 12 tunes, but the disc only contains two that survive. “Tenderly” and “Leap Frog” are each arranged as big band charts. Ayler’s tenor extemporizes sweetly on both, but etched deeper in his tone are minute traces of the rippling vibrato that would become his vernacular. Sound quality is surprising clean and clear.
Disc One skips ahead to Ayler’s first formal small-group recording date as a sideman in Finnish guitarist Herbert Katz’s quintet. The menu is a trio of bop-flavored standards and though Katz is far from rigid in his arrangements, Ayler is easily the most interesting facet of the group. Even in these sedate surroundings, the saxophonist finds room to move. It’s especially intriguing to hear him negotiate relatively straight choruses, complementing the chordal elements elaborated by Katz’s guitar and pianist Teuvo Suojärvi. Ayler’s solos, especially on “Sonnymoon For Two” bear a striking resemblance to Sonny Rollins in their initial measures, but keening vibrato and quavering trills spread like rippling waves as each one develops.
Next comes a storied recording with Cecil Taylor’s trio of Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray, taped at the Club Montmarte in 1962. On paper “Four,” the nearly 22-minute ensemble improvisation, shines like a Rosetta stone in terms of historical consequence. The actual listening experience ends up feeling slightly anticlimactic (especially considering the half dozen or so other instances Taylor and Ayler crossed paths). Rousing solos arise from everyone except Murray, who seems content to hustle and bustle about his kit. The two horns only play together for a fraction of the running time, but it’s a thrill to compare and contrast Lyon’s acrobatic flutters on alto with Ayler’s holy room-filling roar on tenor. A large chunk of the action focuses on a dialogue between Taylor and Murray, the latter's eerie moaning audible over the continuous cascade of his snare and cymbal work. But grousing about the music here is a bit like complaining about hard tack biscuits on a desert island.
The remainder of the first disc presents the first half of a concert at New York City’s Cellar Café by Ayler’s working trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Murray. It’s the group’s recording debut, presaging the seminal Spiritual Unity album by approximately a month. Incomplete versions of “Spirits” and “Ghosts” bookend a full reading of “Saints.” All three tunes build from Ayler’s ancient-to-the-future cadence-fueled themes, using melodic military band kernels as springboards for register-bucking whinnies and snorts. Peacock wears away at his strings with fingers and bow. Murray once again applies his ghostly groan as an underpinning to the swaying, sometimes lurching, improvisations. Even with all the stamina expended, there’s a strange slow-motion flavor, even stasis, to some of the sections. It’s as if the three have slipped the pinions of temporal order and entered their own private plane.
The music spills onto Disc Two with three more cuts from the same concert, including versions of “The Wizard,” “Children” and another incarnation of “Spirits.” Ayler’s cross-grained tenor retorts are especially emphatic on the first tune, while the second carries the surprising tenderness of a ballad before trailing off into an extended cathartic blowout. The thin number of audible claps from the audience suggests that the crowd was modest at best. Fidelity is pallid in places, but the three musicians manage to combat the lingering sonic detritus in their midst quite well.
Sound quality improves significantly on the six tracks salvaged from a club date several months later in Copenhagen, once again at the Café Montmarte. Trumpeter Don Cherry joins the trio to create a quartet. These tracks were originally released on the Ayler Records compilation of 2002. Ayler continues the practice of elemental one-word composition titles with pieces like the tender “Mothers,” itself a recasting of the old spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Cherry acts as a strong catalytic presence, drawing on Ayler’s energy and injecting his own. The saxophonist’s stellar command of timbre and inflection - a skill rivaled by players like Charles Gayle today - is front and center on pieces like the stunning “Vibrations.” Murray reins in the moaning and there’s a pervading sense of organic purposefulness to the music. Peacock is a minor revelation, pummeling his bass with a pizzicato technique that propels him almost instantly to the vanguard of practitioners on his instrument.
Disc Two closes out with a nine-minute untitled improv segment by pianist Burton Greene’s quintet, taped at Slug's Saloon in New York, early 1966. In addition to Ayler, the band also includes tenor saxophonist Frank Smith and drummer Rashied Ali. The five men reach a fever pitch right out of the gate, sustaining a collective howl the rises and recedes only by minor degrees before the tape runs out. Ayler’s tenor sustains the first four or so minutes alone, ratcheting an upper register cry as Smith rockets in underneath. Ali hammers away at his kit throughout. Greene’s thunderous stabs at the ivories largely vanish in the frothing tide of whitecap drums and chafing horns, an unfortunate fate shared by bassist Steve Tintweiss.
The third and fourth discs document the extant recordings of Ayler’s three-night gig at La Cave, April 1966, in Cleveland. Ayler’s band included his brother Donald on trumpet (chops still in relatively fledgling form) and the newly added strings of classically trained violinist Michel Sampson. Local bassist Mutawef Shaheed and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, another recent recruit, rounded out the ensemble.
Disc Three presents three sets of music from two nights. Fresh among the repertoire is Ayler’s hymn-like march “Spirits Rejoice,” which achieves even greater tonal reach as Sampson’s corkscrew lines cleave at the harmonic upper reaches of his instrument. Through a handful of heated solos, the violinist reaches regions beyond the scope of even Ayler’s altissimo cry. “D.C.” the initials corresponding to Don Cherry who wrote the piece and was also its dedicatee in Ayler’s reading, showcases brother Donald Ayler’s raw artistry on his brass. Sampson takes another string-castigating solo here, and during a dizzying rondo on “Ghosts.” Ayler even engages the violinist in an extended conversational duo in the first of two untitled pieces. The disc ends with the first set from the third night of the engagement. A triumphantly rampaging 15-minute medley of “Prophet-Ghosts-Spiritual Bells” and a headlong dive into “Our Prayer” clock in collectively at over a third of the disc’s duration.
Disc Four contains the second set of night two, with Cleveland native the Rev. Frank Wright on tenor saxophone. Wright was an erstwhile student of Ayler’s who as a later expatriate in France went on to influence a whole slew of saxophonists in his own right, including Bay Area fire breathers Glenn Spearman and Marco Eneidi. Hearing him engage in a sweat-inducing fracas and spout multiphonics with his mentor from the bandstand is one of the definitive highlights of the entire box.
Five tracks provide the expanded ensemble with plenty of material to feast upon. Included are two more explosive takes of “Spirits” and a medley that shifts from an untitled opening improv into a tight and crisply minted take on one of Ayler’s signature tunes, “Truth is Marching In.” Sampson’s sidewinding harmonics once again set up a spiraling counterpoint to the blistering horn cavalcades. Don Ayler punches what seems like hundreds of rapid fire notes through the bell of his brass, but even with all the ammo expended his solos from piece to piece don’t vary that much in structure or texture. Jackson’s tumbling martial beats range from spacious pattering snare rolls to full-bore crunching tattoos on cymbals and toms. Shaheed once again finds himself more of an afterthought than a clearly audible entity, especially during the set’s opening third. His nebulous contributions accept their general anonymity, but he does manage to break through the ranks for a muscularly strummed solo on “Zion Hill.”
Six months later Ayler found himself tapped to join George Wein’s traveling version of the Newport Jazz Festival on a tour of Europe. The interim between Cleveland and Europe necessitated several personnel changes with Bill Fowell assuming the bass chair and Beaver Harris taking charge of traps. Samson and Don Ayler were still on the payroll. The quintet was to represent the “post-bebop” portion of the program. Disc Five encapsulates music from two dates on the tour starting with a five-track set from a concert at the Berlin Philharmonie and concluding with another five cuts from a Rotterdam date five days later. All 10 tracks transpire in fairly blemish-free fidelity.
Both concerts follow fairly regimented set lists and schematic-guided arrangements of “The Truth is Marching In,” “Bells,” “Spirits Rejoice” and “Our Prayer,” among others. There are surprising new pieces too. The enigmatically titled “Free Spiritual Musics Part IV” erupts as a caterwauling dirge, accelerating to dervish-speed intensity. Sampson and Fowell repeatedly sprout stinging nettles of harmonics with their bows, which the horns ride out and over, grandly gliding through the folk themes. Sections of riotous cacophony are fewer here, though with the band circling faithfully around the melodic stanchions of the tunes more frequently. There approach is almost akin to a chamber orchestra rolling out its well-worn repertoire. Exceptions to well-heeled mood arise too, as the conflagration that is “Bells” bears out. It’s a tour de force for both Don Ayler and Sampson, who blow the hinges off the tune.
The European tour served as a precursor to the formal 1967 Newport Festival. The quintet’s appearance at the stateside event opens Disc Six. Another personnel change makes for a happy case of serendipity when Milford Graves holds court behind the drum kit. The super-injected rhythmic unpredictability of his presence makes the three-song set - which includes two medleys and a frenetic recasting of “Our Prayer” - an instant joy to hear. According to Graves’ recollections, rain almost led to the cancellation of their slot. Anticipating the rain, the band upped the ante with a performance designed to magnetize the audience to its seats. The gambit sounds successful, considering what survives on tape. The band rages through the music; Graves ignites bonfires his sticks from “Truth is Marching In” onward. The oddly metered “Japan,” paired here with “Universal Indians,” swaps the usual European folk melodies for Japanese ones and allows Ayler a chance at some ululating vocals.
The next two snapshots are arguably even more galvanizing: a medley of “Love Cry/Truth is Marching In/Our Prayer,” taped at John Coltrane’s funeral, and another medley piece from a date with Ayler sitting in with Pharoah Sanders’ band. Coltrane’s death had a profound affect on Ayler. According to some, it sharpened his sense of purpose, reminding him of his own mortality and the need to continue developing his music as swiftly as possible. Convening a quartet comprised of Don Ayler, Graves and bassist Richard Davis to pay homage to his departed friend, Ayler lights a seraphic flame that burns brightly, if a bit distantly in the cavernous acoustics of the church.
Leaping ahead exactly six months to another fortuitous date, this time at the Renaissance Ballroom in New York, Ayler adds his tenor to the already potent firepower of the Pharoah Sanders Ensemble. Also in the ranks that night: Chris Capers (trumpet), Dave Burrell (piano), Sirone (bass), Roger Blank (drums) and two unidentified saxophonists on alto and tenor respectively. The band launches through a two-part medley combining Sanders’ “Venus” and “Upper and Lower Egypt.” Both themes are peripheral to the intense improvisations that surround them. Sander’s opening salvo is deceptively bop-based. He crafts a surprisingly lyrical extemporization over an ominous piano vamp by Burrell. Soon enough, though, he’s reaching beyond the upper tenor register, spitting out carbonized tones with enough heat to singe speakers. Ayler follows where Sanders leaves off, lighting the fuse of his own solo and arcing into the stratospheric altissimo.
The disc’s final five tracks are actually outtakes from Ayler’s New Grass sessions for Impulse. Once in circulation, that album’s rock and pop-inflected leanings led many of Ayler’s loyal listeners to question his motives and judgment. While the presence of Call Cobbs' Rockischord, Bill Fowell’s electric bass, Bernard Purdie’s backbeat-happy drums and the vocals of Mary Parks and Vivian Bostic are an anomaly on this set, they still make for an entertaining and eccentric interlude.
Disc Seven holds the final musical selections of the set. The first two pieces flip the expected rank order, with Ayler sitting in with his brother Don’s septet for a concert at Town Hall, in New York. Other luminaries in the ensemble included: Sam Rivers on tenor saxophone, Richard Davis on bass and drummer Muhammad Ali. Sound is brittle and washed out with Ali’s crashing drums and the horns suffusing most of mix. “Brother John,” no doubt in reference to Coltrane, opens with a fanfare theme that wouldn’t be out of place in a Roman coliseum, swiftly arching into a rowdy dirge built around the recurring ecstatic theme. “Judge Ye Not” explodes from an equally righteous melodic root, the horns spiraling and soaring atop the tidal roll of Ali’s traps. According to the book annotations, the performance would mark the last known stage collaboration of the brothers and Ayler’s last surviving stateside recording.
The final four musical tracks of the set arise out of Ayler’s sojourn in France during the summer of 1970, the day after the concerts on his Fondation Maeght albums. It’s a small club date and his quartet includes old friend Cobbs on piano, Steve Tintweiss returning on bass and drummer Allen Blairman, with Parks providing peripheral tambourine and hand-clapping. All but one of the tunes lack formal titles, designated instead by keys (i.e., “C Minor”). Edits both between and within the pieces are often coarse. The music relies uniformly on an open-ended blowing approach less common in his later work. Ayler solos frequently, often with prolix abandon, delving into a melody from a myriad of angles and entrances. It’s a curiously fitting capstone, one that manages to reference the many nuances of his improvisatory style to date, from minutely measured melodicism to register-splintering tone painting and the span between.
Discs Eight and Nine open up apertures into Ayler’s world in his own words. Four separate interviews dating from 1964, 1966 and 1970, all recorded in Europe, visit him at a variety of junctures. The last two in particular find him expounding on a wide range of topics, from his early upbringing through plans for the future. A final interview with Don Cherry and his wife Mocqui closes the box. Appended to this last selection is an odd snippet of a verbal altercation between Ayler and Parks and a ticket clerk at the Luxemborg airport who refuses to acknowledge their flight reservations. Ayler’s ego flares under the accompanying frustration of the circumstances and it’s an oddly random and discordantly argumentative way to end the set.
These spoken word segments aren’t as viscerally pleasing as the music, but their importance should not be dismissed. The information gleaned goes a long way toward explicating and even correcting the party line on Ayler’s legacy that’s been in place since his premature death. He speaks candidly and passionately about setbacks, frustrations and a desire to have his work appreciated on its own terms. Strong religious threads weave through much of the oration, especially in the later monologues. Ayler repeatedly refers to himself as but a vessel through which the music finds ingress into the world. This current of selflessness (also explored in his Cricket article, an essay by Amiri Baraka and Cherry reminiscences) runs contrary to his obvious desires for success and remuneration for his efforts. It’s a case of the metaphysical and materialistic seeking some sort of equilibrium, and one of the many lasting philosophical questions uncovered by Ayler’s art. As with the music, the book takes pains to provide revealing context for each of the conversations.
Perhaps the best summation in appraising Holy Ghost is in stating the most fundamental. I came away from my initial forays through the music and commentary even more in thrall of Ayler’s oeuvre than I was previously. Cheap analogies are easy, but the experience truly is like bathing in a stream of the man’s artistry for the better part of 10 and a half hours. The figurative water is at once holy and secular, quenching to both spirit and mind, challenging and addressing as it opens doors previously only cracked or closed. The completist tag so frequently applied to projects of this exhaustive magnitude seems ill-fitting in this case. As a monument, true to the exact letter of Jackie McLean’s ardent entreaty, I can think of no better posthumous example. People will certainly be ruminating and debating this box set for decades to come.
By Derek Taylor