Albert We Hardly Knew Ye

Mark Corroto By

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The Chinese mystic philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, "the flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long." Although he never heard the music of Albert Ayler, we're sure that he would agree the saxophonist's fire music was luminescent. Ayler's career was indeed quite brief, recording only for a period of eight years until his untimely dead at age 34, in 1970.

The description of the flame is also apropos, as Ayler was quoted as saying, "Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost." As the Holy Ghost is often depicted in Christian iconography as an anointing fire, Ayler's music had the same effect as a blessing or consecration. Well, at least to his devotees, Frank Wright and Pharoah Sanders in the Sixties, and Mats Gustafsson, Charles Gayle, Jeff Lederer, John Dikeman, and Mars Williams today.

After his historic studio recording Spiritual Unity (ESP, 1964) with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, these two discs below document the live experience of the Ayler message. The credo, as he preached it in 1964 and 65.

Albert Ayler
Bells & Prophecy: Expanded Edition

This 2 CD expanded edition of Bells/Prophecy combines his May 1, 1965, Town Hall concert with a live date from the Cellar Café recorded one month before he made Spiritual Unity in 1964. The single track "Bells" from Town Hall was initially released as a one-sided clear plastic LP by ESP label chief Bernie Stollman, and has been a coveted collector's item for decades.

If we work through this music in chronological order, the Cellar Café sessions, the bulk of these two discs should be listened to first. Poet Paul Haines recorded this music on June 14, 1964, and it was originally issued in 1975, presenting five tracks. The remaining six came out in the massive 10-CD Holy Ghost (Revenant, 2004) box set.

The Cellar sessions find Ayler with his Spiritual Unity trio of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. With what we suspect was not professional recording equipment, the sound is surprisingly clear, disc one much more so than disc two. Customers can be heard chatting before "Ghosts" begins, but are soon inundated by Ayler's stentorian saxophone. Behind the saxophonist, both Peacock and Murray's ideas of timekeeping were revolutionary. Both opted for bursts of energy, Peacock's bass singing and Murray's drums making small whirlpools of sound.

Ayler's gospel was simple, yet anarchic to many ears. He preferred anthems and marches as the ingredients for his free jazz. Like Ornette Coleman's music of the time, a child could grasp the less-is-more concepts of freedom. The eerie wordless moaning heard behind the playing only adds to its mystery.

The twenty-minute Town Hall "Bells" made nearly one year after the cellar recording, adds trumpeter Donald Ayler, saxophonist Charles Tyler, and replaces Peacock with bassist Lewis Worrell. The music has more urgency, and adheres less to song form and leans more towards free jazz, yet moving through a medley of Ayler music. By now, he had followers to his theories, and there is a familiarity to the sounds produced.

Albert Ayler Quartet
European Radio Studio Recordings 1964

In the immediate aftermath of Albert Ayler's 1964 Spiritual Unity (ESP) recording, he embarked on a brief European tour with his trio of bassist Gary Peacock, drummer Sunny Murray, plus the addition of Don Cherry on cornet. Of course, on his return to the States, it would be brother Don Ayler instead of Cherry playing trumpet. These European Radio Studio Recordings 1964 collect the music from two sessions that were originally released as The Hilversum Recordings (Osmosis, 1965) and The Copenhagen Tapes (Ayler Records, 2002). The music was properly recorded by skilled engineers, and more importantly remastered to Hatology's high standards, here by Peter Pfister.

The music is precious and scarce Ayler. His tenor opens the disc with "Angels" with his thunderous vibrato attack and Murray's bounce-to-exhaustion beat. The piece unwraps itself with the penetrating cornet of Cherry and Peacock's pursuing bass. It must have been quite the surprise for European audiences to hear this quartet, because few would have heard Spiritual Unity (1964) before witnessing this music. Don Cherry's presence might have given a clue to audiences familiar with his association with Ornette Coleman and the Atlantic recordings The Shape Of Jazz To Come (1959) and This Is Our Music (1960).

The quartet takes "Ghosts" at a much swifter pace than previous recordings. It's not that Ayler rushes the piece, but he pushes Cherry ever outward. During Peacock's urgent solo, we hear the moaning (my bet it's Murray) that adds to the chilly nature of the piece. "Ghosts" ends with a speedy run through, almost like Miles Davis would play "The Theme" before a set break.

The three versions of "Spirits" are anything but repetitive. Ayler has a way of opening up a composition so it never sounds the same way twice. That's the freedom gospel he preached from his bully pulpit.

Tracks and Personnel

Bells & Prophecy: Expanded Edition

Tracks: (CD1) Bells; Spirits; Wizard; Ghosts, First Variation; Prophecy; Ghosts, Second Variation; (CD2) Spirits; Saints; Ghosts; The Wizard; Children; Spirits (theme).

Personnel: Albert Ayler: tenor saxophone; Donald Ayler: trumpet; Charles Tyler: alto saxophone; Lewis Worrell: bass; Gary Peacock: bass; Sunny Murray: drums, percussion.

European Radio Studio Recordings 1964

Tracks: Angels; C.A.C; Ghosts; Infant Happiness; Spirits; No Name; Vibrations; Saints; Spirits.

Personnel: Albert Ayler: tenor saxophone ; Don Cherry: cornet; Gary Peacock: double bass Sunny Murray: drums.

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