Larry Ochs and Vinny Golia: Twisting the Tales of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler


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Though the word "innovation often implies a purely technical standpoint, new approaches in art demand as much feeling and spirit as they do technique. In service of the self as much as something higher, the saxophone's lofty manifestations in the hands and breath of such figures as Albert Ayler and John Coltrane are multiphonic as much as exhortations of God and humanity.

The tenor tradition in particular is indebted to Ayler and Coltrane, and so it goes that homages to their influence are ingrained as much with the message as the medium. Larry Ochs is well-known for his interest in late-period Coltrane, and his Sax & Drumming Core is a stripped-down exploration of saxophone preaching. Ayler's late period, contra-Coltrane is often misunderstood if not downright maligned; seven improvisers from both coasts dig into a like number of rarely-explored Ayler tunes in the project Healing Force.

Larry Ochs Sax & Drumming Core
Up From Under

Known mostly for his work in the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, tenor and sopranino saxophonist Larry Ochs assembled Sax & Drumming Core in 2000, partnering his reeds with the drums of Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson, two other members of the Bay Area improvising community. Amendola has recently upped his profile in Nels Cline's unit, while Robinson was a longtime collaborator with saxophonist Glenn Spearman, including the Double Trio with Spearman and Ochs.

Up From Under, recorded on a European tour in 2004, is Core's second release, following The Neon Truth (Black Saint, 2002). The basic thrust behind the unit, according to Ochs, is as a vehicle for exploring the vocal tradition in African-American, Eastern European and Asian cultures, vis-à-vis the "cry atop the drum choir. The title track employs a heavy, dual backbeat as Ochs digs in, panning his tenor voice in gutbucket honks and pulpit-shaking shouts. Rarely does a pair of drummers occupying a tight rhythmic space behave so complementarily, but Amendola and Robinson stir one another's pots with rounded sashays and devilish accents. Ochs enters in a brief and spare dialogue on sopranino with Robinson, exploring delicate patterns of tongue-speech before returning to raspy exhortation.

But as much fire and brimstone might come from the blues tradition, Sax & Drumming Core isn't all yawp. "Dragon Fly is a dusky, pastoral piece, its lilting and wispy subtones intermingling with distant tub patterns. The clicks and pinched phrases of the higher horn are in full view on "X-10, well-matched by percussive seesaws. The glossolalia Ochs employs on tenor become delicate minutiae of cadence and tone in between salvos of hot infinity. Up From Under presents a nuanced set of improvisations from the vocal-drum tradition, a refining of the art which is as much forward glance as homage.

Healing Force
The Songs Of Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler's late period, whether viewed as commercial excess or a genuine attempt to deliver his and confidant Maria Parks' message to the widest audience, nevertheless resulted in a curious and ragtag mélange of R&B, free jazz and psychedelia well-suited to the climate of the late 1960s. Healing Force explores music culled from Ayler's Love Cry (Impulse!, 1967), New Grass (Impulse!, 1968) and Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe (Impulse!, 1969) in a reverential fashion.

The ensemble is an odd cross-section of contemporary free music, featuring reedman Vinny Golia, guitarist Henry Kaiser, vocalist Aurora Josephson, percussionist Weasel Walter, bassist Damon Smith, multi- instrumentalist Mike Kneally and guitarist/bassist Joe Morris, on seven covers and two originals. "Music Is The Healing Force is given a sprawling twenty-minute reading, Golia blowing fierce free-bop over the twin- engine thrum of Smith and Morris. As Walter's spry patter maintains the churn, Kneally and Josephson elevate the energy to stateliness.

"Japan sounds much more like saxophonist Pharoah Sanders's tune, Kaiser's disjointed zither-like strum laying the groundwork for Josephson's yodeling. Meanwhile, the huge bottom of basses and bass saxophone underpinning Kaiser's bent plinks put "A Man Is like A Tree into "Gittin' To Know Y'all territory. Indeed, this is just one of many instances that Healing Force's largeness is felt—the grand sound of these seven musicians far exceeds the mere number of participants. Incongruity is revelry, too—the sopranino dervish- like over pummeling rhythms and dustbowl guitar, for example. Needless to say, the grandiosity and sonic clashes here would hardly have been lost on Ayler and Parks. It is part of what made Ayler and his music tick.

In Sax & Drumming Core and Healing Force, saxophone preaching has, as much as it is revered, taken on a few new traditions. Whether there is a wide audience for its message is moot; the instrument and the voice it carries will always have a multiplicity of homes.

Tracks and Personnel

Up From Under

Tracks: Up from Under; Dragon Fly; X-10; And Nothing But...; Neonawi; Poporta; X-09; Finn Passes Pluto.

Personnel: Larry Ochs: tenor and sopranino saxophones; Donald Robinson: drums and percussion; Scott Amendola: drums and percussion.

The Songs Of Albert Ayler

Tracks: New New Grass/Message from Albert; Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe; Japan/Universal Indians; A Man Is Like a Tree; Oh! Love Of Life; Thank God For Women; Heart Love; New Generation; New Ghosts/New Message.

Personnel: Vinny Golia: tenor, bass, alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones, flute; Aurora Josephson: voice; Mike Kneally: piano, voice, and guitar; Henry Kaiser: guitar; Joe Morris: guitar and bass; Damon Smith: bass; Weasel Walter: drums and percussion.

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