Fifty years after the recording of Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity, the music (and the man) are still causing tumult. It is not so much that free jazz hasn't been on our radar these past decades, it's just that this recording remains one of those "where were you, when you first heard it?" experiences.
Recorded in a very small, hot studio in July of 1964, the album which thrust the new label ESP onto the map, consisted of just four songsthirty minutes of music. But it was to be 30 minutes that changed the direction of jazz. John Coltrane had been searching for new forms of expression, and paid close attention to Ayler's music. His influence on Coltrane's approach can be heard on late recordings including Sun Ship (Impulse!, 1965) and Meditations (Impulse!, 1965). Today, you can hear his sound across the free jazz spectrum, in the music of saxophonists Ivo Perelman, David Murray, Vinny Golia, Peter Brötzmann, and Joe McPhee. But he also has guided musicians like guitarists Marc Ribot and Joe Morris, bassist William Parker, and rockers Neil Young and Violent Femmes.
This fiftieth anniversary edition includes an additional track, "Vibrations," that was released on a subsequent Arista/Freedom LP and can also be found in the box set Holy Ghost (Revenant, 2004).
The sound of Spiritual Unity was/is rejected by many as primitive and unformed, but its unrefined nature is its beauty. Ayler taps into the earliest form of music, collective improvisation. Form and structure give way to emotion. While academy trained musicians miss the point, children listening to his music naturally pick up on its clarity and open, unassuming approach.
Ayler (like Ornette Coleman before him) withstood the criticism and pressure of critics and his fellow musicians, and carved a path through this "New Thing." He was to die just six years after this date (at age 34) under mysterious conditions, his body found in the East River.
Spiritual Unity is a trio record unlike any trio to date. Bassist Gary Peacock, who we know from Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio, doesn't so much keep time as freed the fires of Ayler's free folk jazz playing. Peacock bridged from his work with pianists Bill Evans and Paul Bley into this open expression with Ayler. Hearing him bow lines on "Spirits" or pull energy bombs on "Ghosts" is akin to watching a boxer working out on a speed bag. The same holds true for drummer Sunny Murray who eschews the presumptions of pulse for accent. His cymbal work sizzles throughout.
Ayler's marches, his folk-jazz and New Orleans brass sound was (is) an audacious and indomitable approach to music making that was both revolutionary and an "ah-ha" moment in the development of free jazz of the 1960s that still resonates loudly today.
Ghosts: First Variation; The Wizard; Spirits; Ghosts: Second Variation.
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