Albert Ayler: Prophecy/Bells
Despite a rather brief period of artistic flourish (c. 1964 - c. 1967), tenor man Albert Ayler has probably, next to Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, held the most sway on the direction of improvisation from a 'thematic' or 'phrase-based' approach to that of a purely sonic one. Ayler melded bebop dexterity and the grotesqueries of juke-joint R&B tenor squawkers to an inordinately fast and decidedly physical, experiential approach to the sound of the tenor saxophone at both upper- and lower-register extremes. This was, to paraphrase John Dewey, art not just as the unification of action and thought, but of action and mass.
Born in Cleveland in 1936 and found dead in the East River under mysterious circumstances in 1970, Ayler's tenure in blues bands and mastery of Charlie Parker's saxophone language by the '50s led to local notoriety, but residences in Scandinavia and New York bolstered confidence in his developing approach. Luckily, there were microphones on hand to document this crucial work.
Caught between a return from Europe in 1963 and a Scandinavian tour in 1964, Albert Ayler's trio with drummer Sunny Murray (whom he met during a brief Danish association with the Cecil Taylor trio in 1962) and bassist Gary Peacock cut what was eventually ESP- Disk's first proper album, Spiritual Unity (ESP 1002). During this part of 1964, the trio performed regularly around New York in coffeehouses and lofts; one concert produced at the Cellar Café by trumpeter/composer/scene-maker Bill Dixon on June 14, 1964 was taped by poet Paul Haines (who composed the booklet for the first edition of ESP 1002) and released by ESP-Disk in the early 1970s as Prophecy, ESP 3030.
Though Ayler had the regular front-line foil of trumpeter Don Cherry in his group around this point (and for the subsequent '64 tour), this concert yields probably the only other readily available album of trio music from this period. To hear Ayler, Peacock and Murray in a studio session like ESP 1002 or the recordings they made with Cherry is to hear only one snapshot of the group's work. Though the trio had honed a group sound and method comprising slow and loping or extremely fast themes; Murray's constant percussive chatter and vocal wailing providing an alternate pure-sound springboard; Peacock's constant harmonic filigree creating yet another aural web, these are presented in Prophecy as a much looser framework.
Ayler's improvisations appear somewhat more "workshop" and decidedly less cohesive, as on the lengthy "Ghosts, First Variation, a rawer and freer improvisation that seems less thematically developed than studio counterparts. Ayler is opening up here, exploring the sound of the saxophone more than he is using that sound to assemble a series of statements. Whether a result of poor miking or a more expansive group approach, Murray's sonic wash is lighter and less apparent (though his vocals coming through loud and clear), and Peacock seems more hushed than usual, girding the canvas of open trio improvisation far less than in other settings. Prophecy, then, might be the group's most honest recording.
Ayler and Don Cherry made good bedfellows, if for no other reason than the fact that, as soloists, their improvisations often intersperse and string together phrase fragments that beget the thematic material of other tunes (hence the seeming interchangeability of Ayler's titles). By 1965, the idea of a solo constructed of freely-associated thematic signposts seemed to necessitate an ensemble that could flesh out these signposts in a series of long-form suites. March-like themes seeming like they were plucked from a funeral procession or a military band (and those lifted from earlier trio/quartet music) join with collective improvisations and ridiculously fast solo flights.
One of the first recorded examples of Ayler's new music was Bells, culled from a May Day 1965 concert at New York's Town Hall (which had reedman Giuseppi Logan's group on the bill as well) and featuring a then-regular band of Murray, trumpeter Donald Ayler, altoist Charles Tyler and the wonderful and criminally under-documented bassist Louis Worrell. Released as ESP 1010 on a single-sided transparent slab of vinyl with a silk- screened and stylized "Bells logo, it was both an eccentric marketing tool and an early document of a shift in Ayler's art. Bells starts with a bang a fierce collective improvisation giving way to Don Ayler's piercing staccato smears and a decidedly feral squall from Tyler's alto.
For once, Ayler's tenor is not the focal point, as he has found cohorts that, while not nearly as technically adept as he, can carry the music at extraordinarily fast speeds and project an inordinate amount of sonic weight. At slower tempos, Ayler's wide vibrato is in full form, offering something in stark emotional and aural contrast to the full group passages. Part of the lasting brilliance of Bells is that the group is much more roughshod at this early stage, the ensemble not yet formed into a cohesive, balanced whole but a rickety patchwork, its seams (and therefore process) showing proudly through.
The middle part of Ayler's career, coinciding with his entire ESP-Disk' tenure (five recordings) and the early part of his Impulse work is a music of contrasts, both in the measurable and the immeasurable. Thankfully, the artifacts yield such a valuable window on both his process and the positive direction of creative music.
Tracks: Spirits; Wizard; Ghosts, First Variation; Prophecy; Ghosts, Second Variation; Bells.
Personnel: Albert Ayler (ts, all tunes) Sunny Murray (d, all tunes) Gary Peacock (b, 1-5) Louis Worrell (b, 6) Charles Tyler (as, 6) Donald Ayler (tp, 6).