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Albert Ayler - Stockholm, Berlin 1966

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Artist: Albert Ayler

Album: Stockholm, Berlin 1966

Label: Hatology

Review date: Nov. 10, 2011

For a man who made such exalted music, Albert Ayler had to ward off his share of curses. People couldn’t hack his music, no matter how he tried to meet them half-way; daunted by poverty, opprobrium, or their own mental illness, his sidemen had a hard time sticking around; and he’d barely played in his home base of New York City for two years before his premature and ill-explained death in 1970, when the 34-year-old saxophonist’s body was pulled from New York’s East River.

The Berlin concert that makes up half of this live recording has been similarly blighted. In 2004, Revenant Records released it with a slightly different running order as part of the Holy Ghost box. A lawsuit between that label and ESP Records’ Bernard Stollman resulted in Revenant’s near-collapse, and one notes a statement on this CD’s sleeve that “This is the first release of these performances… to be approved by and officially and legally licensed from the Ayler Estate and the copyright holders of these tapes.”

Stockholm, Berlin 1966 comprises two complete recordings made by Ayler’s quintet when they participated in a Newport In Europe package tour of Europe that also featured Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck and Max Roach. Despite the incongruous company, this was a high point on the time line of Ayler’s career. He had a standing band with a clear grasp of his sound concept of the moment, and he was able to put them to work. The innovations of his early ESP records had resulted in some fantastic, paradigm-shifting music, but his sidemen had scattered and he’d formed a new ensemble around one man he trusted not to leave him. His brother Donald picked up the trumpet in order to be the foil to his brother’s tenor, and the new group’s material was designed in part to accommodate his technical limitations. Don stuck to the tunes, making up in force what he lacked in fluidity. Instead of Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock’s meter-less streams of directed energy, the new rhythm section of William Folwell and Beaver Harris favored stirring march cadences. Albert was not hemmed in by these limits; rather, he and moonlighting classical violinist Michael Samson used these fixed elements as a sturdy platform from which to launch their own improvisations, which could either double the trumpeter’s melodic statements or depart from them altogether.

Both of the concerts on this CD mainly feature the same tunes, which affords one a chance to hear how they changed from night to night. In Berlin, “Omega (Is The Alpha”) is as succinct as a before-dinner prayer; in Stockholm, it explodes into a titanic tenor-drums duet that leaves the tune behind, then swoops back in to usher further duos between members of the front line and the rhythm section. The quintet seems to have been granted a bit more time in Stockholm; several tunes run longer, and there is one — a medley of “Infinite Spirit” and Pharoah Sanders’ “Japan” — that doesn’t appear in Berlin. There are also a couple of unfortunate thumps where someone whacked a mic, which may be why this session has been relegated to the bootleg realm until now. Those bumps aside, it sounds fine; the Swedish Radio engineers who recorded the concert did a decent job, and this set stands up sonically and energy-wise to similar vintage recordings made in Lorrach, France, and at Slugs’ Saloon in New York.

It’s easy, nearly 50 years after his first recording, to take Ayler’s gifts for granted. There is no shortage of performers, from Peter Brötzmann to the Jooklo Duo, who either consciously or unconsciously emulate his emphasis on sound over notes and emotion over style. But it is another thing to confront his music anew, to hear the desperate commingling of heartbreak and joy in his immense sound. Hearing these new performances, despite the familiarity of the themes, is a chance to experience Ayler’s bursting soul one more time.

By Bill Meyer

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