Thursday, November 28, 2019
Albert Ayler Quartets 1964 - Spirits To Ghosts Revisited (ezz-thetics, 2019) ****(*)
By Colin Green
1964 has been described as Albert Ayler's annus mirabilis, the year in which his music reached maturity and he found his true voice. Arguably, he never attained the same heights or levels of cohesion so consistently thereafter. The album under review, part of the Revisited series on Hat Hut's ezz-thetics imprint, allows us to sample his music towards the beginning and end of that year comprising remastered versions of two releases: Spirits recorded in New York in February and Ghosts in Copenhagen from September (not New York as stated on the back cover). Both albums were rereleased on the Arista/Freedom label in the early 1970s under the titles Witches & Devils and Vibrations respectively. The track order differs from all previous versions and although no explanation is provided, presumably this is in line with the order of recording at each session and the documentary nature of the project. Art Lange supplies excellent notes.
"I like to play something - like the beginning of 'Ghosts' - that people can hum," said Ayler in a revealing interview with Nat Hentoff in 1966, "and I want to play songs like I used to sing when I was real small. Folk melodies that all the people would understand. I'd use these melodies as a start and have different simple melodies going in and out of a piece. From simple melody to complicated textures to simplicity again and then back to the more dense, the more complex sounds."
In part, this echoes a worldview that can be traced back to Rousseau and the Romantics and which has remained prevalent to this day across a range of cultures - that a more authentic and less corrupted image of ourselves is to be found in native traditions and folk-history, a place that also exists in the innocence of childhood, states in which a purer, more spontaneous version of the self is unrestrained by limiting conventions and where intuition confers greater understanding than the powers of the intellect. Also significant is a mythologising tendency reflected in the brief titles Ayler gave his pieces which evoke a shadowy, numinous realm and a desire for things that cannot be explained. Ghosts are emanations from the past appearing in the present; spirits, witches and devils occupy a spectral region that intersects mysteriously with our own. Likewise, for Ayler music was a medium in both senses: a means of communing with others and a form for articulating areas to which the rational mind provides limited access, the paradigm of creativity that marries archetypal with individual sensibilities. It is in the latter that we find the complexity he mentions. Improvisation provides a dramaturgy for personal voices allowing them to move from generic to unique expression. At the same time the music of our age is essentially fragmentary in which no single voice prevails, yet we yearn for a past now lost, grounded in some half-remembered union. During 1964 Ayler's achievement was to find a way of combining all these elements into music that holds an enduring fascination - immediate, melancholic, profound - and which remains a touchstone for free jazz.
Looking back, there's a tension in his work between impulses which it took him some time, if not to resolve then to use in a genuinely creative friction. Ayler wanted to connect with the foundations of jazz in hymns and song, felt to be imbued with transcendent values, and to explore the instrumental innovations of bebop and beyond, to be rooted in the vernacular but also to have a distinctive, contemporary vision. He'd developed an idiosyncratic way with the tenor saxophone, having power and personality, yet found no satisfactory format in which his warped pitches, off-key shrieks and R&B squawks could be properly integrated so they would sound like more than mere eccentric bursts and indulgent meanderings. He apparently introduced wayward deviations even when practicing as a child and was told by his father to get back to the melody: "I'd be standing in a corner playing and trying to communicate with a spirit that I knew nothing about at that particular age." As heard on My Name is Albert Ayler , originally recorded for Danish radio in January 1963, with most standards it was as if he was speaking a hybrid language, unsure of quite what he wanted to say and at odds with the repertoire and his fellow musicians.
Two tracks from that session suggested ways forward however, though this may seem clearer to us now than it did to him. On 'Summertime', a ballad of noble simplicity, Ayler slithers around the melody, chopping phrases into irregular sections, reducing his line to soft textural trails, giving the performance a heightened expressive weight threaded to the underlying melody which always remains a point of reference. On the day after that recording, when first hearing Ayler play, Don Cherry felt the same spiritual presence and spontaneous outpouring as in the congregation of a Baptist church as a child. The final track, 'C.T.', a reference to Cecil Taylor, is a freely improvised piece. Some months before in October 1962 while working in Sweden, Ayler had seen the Taylor quartet at the Golden Circle in Stockholm. He was familiar with the melodic and other innovations of Coltrane, Ornette and Sonny Rollins, but Taylor's music was probably the most advanced formal development of jazz at that point and he wanted to be part of it - "I finally found someone I could play with" Sunny Murray reports him as saying. Ayler sat in for one night and played with the trio of Taylor, Jimmy Lyons and Murray during the latter part of their residency at the Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen the following month, though not on the night the legendary Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come was taped. There is however, a recording taken from a Danish TV broadcast of the trio with Ayler in an extended improvisation of over 20 minutes from a week earlier, considered by Mats Gustafsson to be "the missing link", that first appeared on the Holy Ghost box set under the title 'Four'. Ayler's 'C.T.', from six weeks later, contains occasional passing references to a dancing figure used in 'Four' but has none of the whirlwind pace injected by Taylor. In the absence of a strong motivic flow and with musicians unfamiliar with the idiom the improvisation tends to drift.
After the My Name in Albert Ayler session, he went to New York for further dates with Taylor, then to his hometown of Cleveland where he sat in with the visiting quartets of Sonny Rollins/Don Cherry and Coltrane. Returning to New York, he played in a private session with Ornette and resumed working with Taylor; the last appearance with his quartet was at the Five Spot in January 1964. In a number of respects Ayler's musical temperament was very different - for him prominent melodic content mattered far more than to Taylor - but in the pianist's ensemble he found something equally important: a form of simultaneity where music can be many things at the same time and ride different currents, superimposed and criss-crossed, not moored in a common rhythm but wandering within and carried by its own processes. It may be that when it came to his own music, in Ayler's mind retaining traces of a blues structure and incorporating tunes redolent of an earlier age with this kind of flexibility enabled him to sustain correspondences between ancestral voices and the diction of the present in a way faithful to both, seeing himself as both heir and transmitter. As he put it at the end of 1964, "The music that we're playing now is just the blues of all of America all over again, but it's a different kind of blues. This is the real blues, the new blues."
For the Spirits session in February (tracks 1 to 4 on this album) Ayler used Henry Grimes on double bass and Sunny Murray, drums, from Taylor's quartet. Joining them were two musicians from Cleveland, trumpeter Norman Howard, with whom Ayler had played since his youth, and double bassist Earle Henderson. The bass players appear on different tracks and both play on 'Witches and Devils' (Unfortunately, their listings on the back cover don't take account of the track reordering.) The piece originally named "Saints" has been renamed "Prophecy" for this release, the title given to the tune on later recordings, and more confusingly it's the same tune as 'Spirits' on Spiritual Unity, which is not the same as the track of that title here. This suggests that Ayler viewed his themes as sharing collective associations, and the melodies themselves are in certain instances variants or bear close family resemblances. Some would be repeated during sets and sessions in different manifestations and a few years later in live performance he would link them together in contrasting sequences.
Two tracks, 'Spirits' and 'Holy Holy', have Ayler and Howard focussing on texture and delineation, part of Ayler's gestural arsenal, though in a more rudimentary fashion than would be used later. In both pieces the head is dispatched quickly followed by long solos, a short duet then a reprise. The solos consist of lines that flow and swell with no real relationship to thematic material, an uninterrupted flux of energy that is all trajectory and contour. Pitches are secondary, arbitrary even. But for the agitating presence of bass and drums the music would be curiously static, however - it has potency but lacks dimension. This rendition of 'Spirits' doesn't contain the bristling invention of performances of the piece later that year, including a version at the Cellar Cafe in June that begins with primordial streams of sound and where the theme is frequently alluded to but only emerges fully at the very end, summoned out of the vortex. 'Holy Holy' introduces a little more variety, particularly in Ayler's solo which concludes with him playing part of 'Ghosts' in its first recorded appearance.
The other two tracks from the session are of a different order. They assimilate melody and improvisation, innovation and raw expression, in a way that would typify Ayler's rubato ballads and form part of his legacy. There's a truly tragic air about them heightened by an exaggerated vibrato that resembles the trembling melisma of passionate song. During Ayler's opening statement on 'Saints/Prophecy' the trumpet provides a parallel commentary in brief stabs outlining the melody, a tune which lies behind the music like a phantom presence through Ayler's twists into the upper registers and Howard's constrictions, until the final, painful unison. 'Witches and Devils' is a funeral dirge with the two basses providing a mumbling accompaniment to the ceremony, released into further laments during their plucked and bowed solo. At times the nuanced, achingly cracked trumpet almost breaks down. Beneath all this Murray's taps, rolls and splashes intensify and subside in weather-like motion. It's a performance of great emotional depth whose elegiac tone and sense of collective mourning are made all the more poignant by mingling constant change and seeming stillness.
Tracks 5 to 10 jump forward to a Copenhagen studio in September 1964 and the quartet with Don Cherry (cornet), Gary Peacock (double bass) and Murray, and it's a quite a leap. As heard on the albums Prophecy and Spiritual Unity, which Hat Hut plan to release at some point as a complete edition, in the intervening months the trio of Ayler, Peacock and Murray had taken shape, forming what is still considered a model of integrated improvisation and intuitive interplay. Peacock's deep-toned yet agile bass was able to handle the metrical shifts and oblique angles of pianist Paul Bley (see: the Bley quartet's Turning Point mostly recorded in March 1964) and his pliable, responsive manner fitted perfectly into the spaces created by tenor and drums. "We weren't playing, we were listening to each other" said Ayler. He'd agreed to a residency for the trio at the Montmartre club with the possibility of other dates and prospects of recording and Cherry, who was already in Europe, joined them. The other recordings of this quartet have appeared most recently on HATology's European Radio Studio Recordings 1964 and Copenhagen Live 1964. Together with the current album they document one the great free jazz ensembles.
As with the trio, in the quartet harmonic progression and melodic invention play a part but are frequently given equal weight alongside other aspects not usually so prominent or even featured at all. Changes in articulation, velocity and register, sometimes abrupt, are combined with continuity and contrast borne by the shape and density of phrases, layered tempos and pure texture. The old hierarchies are not done away with so much as reconfigured within a wider ambit so that imitation and resemblance, divergence and variation - the essentials of instrumental discourse - can function on many levels and in surprising ways, making the music concurrently familiar and strange. Cherry adds extra colour and refinement, acting as an offset to Ayler and Peacock plays arco extensively, a multi-hued sonority not heard with the trio. Murray's kit is recorded with proper definition allowing a genuine four-way perspective of the quartet, enhanced by the then common practice of placing drums and bass at either side of the soundstage.
'Ghosts' is a tune Ayler based on the folk ditty 'Torparvisan' (Little Farmer's Song) that had been part of his set while touring Sweden with local musicians, though in his hands it couldn't be more different. (Later, he was to incorporate 'La Marseillaise', originally a marching song, into 'Spirits Rejoice' and other pieces.) There are two versions of 'Ghosts' here, opening with the longest. After cycling through the theme all is rent asunder. Like starting from scratch, motivic segments are caught in a swirl of conflicting tonal centres. Ayler's off-kilter tenor is wide open then reduced to a surge of screams and honks, taken up by Cherry's sinuous cornet that eventually reintroduces the theme in a recognisable form for what sounds like a natural conclusion; save that the bass continues oblivious, skittering over the melody before being joined by the others for a rousing unison which this time brings the piece to an end. The second version of 'Ghosts' has no solos and highlights the differing character of the tune's constituent parts: haunting then ebullient then back again.
Ayler's characteristic handling of intonation and timbre owes a debt to vocal techniques, replicating those subtle tremors, inflections, and occasional brittle edges employed by singers, even the open throated exaltations of voices raised in supplication. On 'Mothers', he uses the chord changes of the gospel song 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child' for a melody delivered in a sobbing, coarse-grained tone. By way of contrast the slightly detached cornet plays the tune shorn of adornment. During the next iteration Ayler's weeping saxophone elicits sympathetic wails from Cherry and in the concluding statement both ascend and merge into their highest registers. Peacock's bass is scraped and bowed throughout in a threnody of veiled counterpoint.
'Vibrations' is an Ornetteish theme that includes a sharply rising figure transformed into an adrenaline rush of coruscating distortions and refulgent fanfare blasts shadowed by heavily plucked, resonant bass and the persistent chatter of Murray's snare drum, ending as a disintegration into silence. In 'Holy Spirit' a repeated chant calls forth fierce confabulations interrupted by an interlude for Peacock's chiselled thoughts and waves of percussion. Like much of this music, what holds the performance together is not a common metre but a shared respiratory rhythm, what Ben Young has called an internal gyroscope, to which individual parts seem related even in contradiction giving the improvisations their own endogenous balance. It's a quality now taken for granted in free jazz.
Cherry said that Ayler was a pure folk musician, meaning instinctual and without artifice. Some of those early critics were right; at times there's an amateurish feel to execution and phrasing, but it's a deliberate absence of cultivated sound that taps into what we think of as natural, uncontrived sentiments, which permeate the music. 'Children' is begun by Ayler as a sombre lullaby, rising and falling with swooning glissandi, then suddenly changes direction and is played at breakneck speed. The remainder of the piece alternates between tender ministrations and upbeat flurries, empathy and exhilaration, topped off by the cornet's final peep.
After 1964 Cherry continued working in Europe and pursued the wider implications of the folk and roots aesthetic, moving towards greater collective improvisation and a synthesis with the music of other cultures. His 'Suite for Albert Ayler' from Montmartre in 1966 is one of the first musical recognitions of Ayler's importance, a melding of 'Ghosts' - a tune he once suggested should be adopted as a new national anthem - and snatches of his own 'Infant Happiness', the only non-Ayler composition played by the Ayler/Cherry quartet and which Ayler had recorded again in 1965 under the title 'D.C.'.
Sonically, the remastering from analogue tapes has resulted in greater presence and richer textures. Previous releases are a little opaque and monochrome in comparison. Spirits has particularly benefitted: there's a more pronounced identity to the two basses on 'Witches and Devils' and Howard's trumpet positively sings out. For those with the albums in their collection already Spirits To Ghosts Revisited is a definite upgrade, and if you don't have them it carries a mandatory recommendation.