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Frank Wright - Blues for Albert Ayler

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Artist: Frank Wright

Album: Blues for Albert Ayler

Label: ESP-Disk

Review date: Jun. 15, 2012

As with many first generation free-jazz icons, the decades have not been kind to the Reverend Frank Wright’s discography. Large chunks of the saxophonist’s folio are hard to come by, often available only in questionably compressed mp3s on esoteric file-sharing blogs. That relative scarcity alone makes releases like Blues for Albert Ayler something to shout about, even if the consistency of the music doesn’t quite match expectations formed from familiarity with Wright’s other work. His raw-throated sound was rooted in the R&B lineage of players like Big Jay McNeely and Joe Houston. Like them, he had the heart of a showman, and those populist impulses manifested both his music and person, the latter in sometimes seemingly incongruous ways, like his preference for cowboy hats and Cadillacs.

Though originally intended for release in 2007, a handful of setbacks curtailed the project, including the passing of drummer Rashied Ali, in whose possession the tape had been since it was recorded in 1974. Ali’s loft space served as venue and the occasion was a dual homecoming of Wright and guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer from European climes. Ali’s brother Muhammad was a regular in Wright’s European groups, so his presence makes for a natural fit.

Sound is surprisingly blemish-free for the most part, especially considering the vintage of the tape source, with tape hiss and amplifier buzz only sporadically intrusive to the proceedings. Producer Michael D. Anderson’s track demarcations provide easy ingress based on the performance’s various transitions. Even with these advantages, the music gets off to a wobbly start, with Wright roaring basic blues riffs over a muddy, churning backdrop from the rhythm section. Bassist Benny Wilson’s amplified strings are particularly ill-served, and he spends much of “Part 1” chugging along without much distinction. Ulmer is also constrained into jagged, fractured chord strumming until about the eight-minute mark when his playing opens up considerably, culminating in the wah-wah saturated space rock section that closes out “Part 3.”

The second and fourth parts of the piece give over to solos from Ali and Wilson. The drummer keeps things relatively concise, occupying about five minutes and underpinning his solo with press roll-dominated momentum. Wilson’s improvisation spills out to over twice that length, the majority of it bowed, and while he’s better served by the acoustics in the absence of Ulmer, his self-indulgent interlude threatens in sections to collapse under its meandering weight. “Part 5” rights the compass with an ensemble return and Wright blowing nimble, forceful flute before Ulmer muscles past the leader in another prolonged spate of coruscating riffage. Wright’s subsequent tenor salvos sound sharper and more urgent here, and the four kick up quite a fulminating racket for another third of an hour before a comparatively brief return to the opening theme in “Part 6.”

It’s an immediate and undeniable thrill to hear Wright, Ulmer and Ali engage each other at length on stage. It also soon becomes arguable that they succumb in this setting to the tendency of so much music of the era — sacrificing concision for protracted spectacle. As with last year’s Ogun release that featured the Rev in the fast company of Blue Notes Pukwana, Dyani and Moholo over the course of a sprawling live set, this is a disc best discovered in smaller doses.

By Derek Taylor

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