Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


Charles Tyler, Stuart Broomer + Perry Robinson, 1966                                                 ©2014 Bill Copeland

Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity is one of the signal moments in free music, Ayler’s first recording to be released in America and as such a revelation for those first hearing it, no doubt for many of them (definitely for me) a genuinely liberating moment. Its recording in July 1964 marked the beginning of ESP-Disk, a label that would become synonymous with the emergence of the New York jazz avant-garde, releasing major recordings by Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Paul Bley and the bandleading debuts of Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, Henry Grimes, Milford Graves and Charles Tyler.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of that recording session, ESP-Disk has released an expanded edition of Spiritual Unity, a five track album that includes a version of the tune known as “Vibrations” that previously appeared on some early vinyl releases in place of “Spirits,” as well as “Spirits” itself. ESP has also released The Albert Ayler Story (ESP4072), a download-only chronicle of Ayler’s life and music. The equivalent of four CDs, it’s a valuable document that presents a chronological survey of Ayler’s playing from a version of “Tenderly” with a U.S. Army band in 1960 to a live performance of “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe” at the Fondation Maeght four months before his death in 1970. Excerpts from Ayler’s own interviews are interspersed throughout with reminiscences from ESP-founder Bernard Stollman and a host of Ayler’s associates, including Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Sunny Murray and Milford Graves. Anyone interested in Ayler, Spiritual Unity and its reception should also see Kevin Whitehead’s wonderfully detailed recent account available at Wondering Sound.

For me, the march of time suggested that I might best testify to the record’s power by turning to my own efforts to come to terms with it when it was released in 1965 (published in Coda in the December 1965 – January 1966 issue). Reading the review again (it seems to pop up on-line), I’m a little amused by the attempts at rationality in the midst of the maelstrom (I was 17 when it appeared), but pleasantly surprised, too, that some of it seems to stand up. I’d started writing reviews for Coda the year before, and John Norris – then the magazine’s founder, publisher and editor – let me go on at length in a process in which I was learning how to think about music. I recall long reviews of records that fifty years later I rarely play because I heard them so often then that they’re embedded in my consciousness – Andrew Hill’s Black Fire and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch are two others that come to mind. I’ve quietly inserted occasional quotation marks, italics and an apostrophe.

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Albert Ayler
Spiritual Unity
ESP Disk 1002 M

The revolution that took place in jazz in the late fifties has given the music a possibility for a state of permanent change as each new artist with a capacity for self-expression emerges with a personal music. While Ornette Coleman’s views suggested great freedom for the improvising musician, his own music, in many respects, adhered to traditional  practices. (This statement is made on the basis of Ornette’s recorded work which is now four years old. All reports suggest that he has grown tremendously in the interim. But these conclusions are not intended as an evaluation of Ornette’s music, but rather the affect that his stated ideas have had on musicians in their formative stages.) Though Coleman’s music, as any strong music will, has created ranks of imitators, his doctrines of freedom, which probably caused greater critical furor than the real content of his music, have given every musician an opportunity for a personal voice, an idea that critics who accept Coleman on the basis of “A jazz revolution every ten or twenty years” must surely find frightening. Anexample is pianist Cecil Taylor who has been performing longer than Coleman, but whose music has evolved considerably in recent years. Taylor is a musician capable of incredibly complex musical-emotional expression, quite beyond the original boundaries of Coleman’s own music. The repercussions of Coleman’s ideas can be seen in Albert Ayler, who, arriving only a few years after Coleman, is playing in a manner that few musicians and fewer critics could have imagined. His music can be described in a sense as a combination of Taylor’s and Coleman’s in that it combines the textural density of the pianist with the altoist’s use of timbres and pitches that have little to do with European formal music. The result is incredible.

The notes to Ayler’s first album (My Name Is, on Fantasy) quote John Coltrane to the effect that he had once heard himself sounding like Ayler in a dream but had never been able to produce it. This seems a good description of Ayler – an unconscious Coltrane – in that Ayler’s approach is multi-noted and moves in emotional realms usually untouched in art, though often reached for. But in musical and emotional terms, Ayler is beyond Coltrane. While Coltrane hears and plays in terms of single notes, Ayler provides an outpouring of indivisible phrases, aural images that have almost tactile shape.

Like Taylor and Coltrane, Ayler plays a virtuoso music – music that demands control of the instrument in a personal direction. (It matters little whether Ayler is possessed of a “legitimate” technique (though I’m sure he is), for Ayler’s music is obviously contained – he plays clearly what he intends to play and playing things I doubt any other tenor saxophonist could touch – speed, range, sound, that are completely musical and completely beautiful. They are also absolutely his and since no one with any claim to sanity could ask an artist to do more than realize his vision with absolute certainty – which Ayler does, it doesn’t really matter if he can play like other people. (I am expounding on this for those who demand familiar terms of reference for a new artist, because they are unsure of their own faculties – their capacity to appreciate art, and to point out that – to the artist, their terms of reference are false, and reflect not on the artist but on themselves. Music tends to hold on to traditional references longer than other art forms because it is fundamentally an abstraction, devoid of natural references at the usual, superficial level of interpretation.)

Ayler’s personal technique as an artist, as opposed to a craftsman, is shown in the quantity of emotion conveyed to the listener in “Ghosts, first variation.” The listener however can be unconscious of Ayler’s accomplishment. I have heard the Ayler of this record compared to the Coltrane of “Impressions,” with the implication of sprawling performance. Yet “Ghosts, first variation,” the first experience to be registered as you play the record, is only five minutes long and that includes the fairly slow opening and closing statements, a bass solo, and a tenor solo that includes several textural changes. When I mention Ayler’s technique (facility, speed) I am not referring to the number of notes played (though this is almost without parallel in improvised music, the parallel being Cecil Taylor), but the amount of emotion perceived by the listener. I cited the brevity of “Ghosts, first variation.” I have several friends who play this record often and none of them complain of the shortness of side 1 (12 minutes) until it has been pointed out to them. Ayler has an incredible capacity for extending time by filling it so completely with music. In “Ghosts” he makes very swift emotional textural modulations that do not weaken the cohesiveness of the music, forming at will singular musical entities.

Similar events occur in the course of “Ghosts 2,” and this skill gives “Spirits” its beautiful structure. “The Wizard” is notable for its sustained intensity.

Ayler’s compositions serve an unusual role in his music. “Ghosts” and “Spirits” are like folk songs in their melodies, and drinking songs in their moods. (“Ghosts” is quite similar to the melody employed in TV commercials for Gallo wine. But Ayler has also employed “Reveille” and “La Marseillaise” in other records). In performance these melodies become absurdly broad in their humour while the subsequent improvisations seem insane (possessed) distortions of the melodies. Ayler may be trying to express everything with only simple melodic materials. If so, he is succeeding admirably. With these melodies, he also seems to be enacting the final exorcism of harmonic sophistication, and bringing an element of Beckett’s absurdity to music. “The Wizard” is a terse phrase which Ayler spits out four times, but at the end he tacks on a simple resolution that is hilariously effective when coupled with the rhythmic figure which he plays.

Ayler is well served by two accompanists who realize that Ayler’s momentum is sufficient to carry them (an unusual reversal of roles, also present in Taylor’s music. Traditional functions were obviously not formed with these two men in mind) and that their function is commentary. Sonny Murray sounds like breathing – pulse. A drummer prophesied in Billy Higgins’ best moments, Murray moves within his co-workers, Ayler and Gary Peacock, as a continuing sympathy.

Peacock has progressed at an amazing rate. In the past I have thought of Peacock as a very competent imitator of Scott La Faro, but the Peacock of Spiritual Unity has harnessed the cheap dexterity of old to a highly personal style. It would be impossible for the bassist to compete with Ayler on his terms of speed and volume, and Peacock carefully reforms the music to make strong emotional registrations of his own. There is an element of abstraction, a tension in his music, that one also hears in Tchicai and Cherry who have worked with this group on a Michael Snow film. Peacock’s rhythmic sense is now the strongest force in his playing, as he alternates sharp high phrases with buzzing low strings only to stop the open string while it is still vibrating with unusual care in rhythmic placement. This skill carries over to his accompaniments to Ayler.

The packaging, art work and photographs, is excellent, unusually imaginative. The liner notes take the form of a booklet, “Ayler, Peacock, Murray, You and the Night and the Music”, by Paul Haines, a beautiful document at once expressionistic and expository, certainly the most perceptive writing to ever grace a record.

Finding another record with the depth of expression, the music, of this one would be difficult. The music demands in return a depth of involvement unprecedented in the form, but it’s much more than worth it.

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Time seemed to move very rapidly then, even with something of the speed of revelation that drove Ayler’s music. Just a few months later, in the spring of 1966, I had the opportunity to play with some musicians strongly associated with that music. John Norris and Bill Smith were presenting a performance in Toronto by a quartet of Sunny Murray, Henry Grimes, Marion Brown and Grachan Moncur III. The night before the four had played at SUNY Buffalo as part of a Sunny Murray nonet, an extraordinary and unrecorded band that played a long Murray piece organized around trills (had it been recorded, it would figure prominently in histories of large ensemble free improvisation). Three other members of the nonet also travelled to Toronto, apparently just to see what it was like: Charles Tyler, Perry Robinson and Alan Shorter (the two members of the nonet not making the Toronto trip were the cellist Joel Friedman and tenor saxophonist Bennie Maupin). Tyler, Robinson and Shorter would play a spontaneous set with Murray and Grimes at the Toronto performance. I asked Sunny if I could play (I had gotten to know him driving to Toronto the night before) and he said yes. I rushed off to get my bass. I include the photo above as a further personal memento of the time.

Stuart Broomer©2014

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