Saturday, July 11, 2009

July 11: Albert Ayler, "Spiritual Unity"

Artist: Albert Ayler
Album: Spiritual Unity
Year: 1964
Label: ESP

Often times within the world of jazz, those who pushed the genre forward remain of lesser stature, as their sound was often misunderstood by those outside the "scene." Though he many not have the same name recognition as Coltrane, Parker, or Young, the fact of the matter is, the tone and style of Albert Ayler influenced everyone in the jazz scene, including the other "greats." In fact, if you listen to any of Coltrane's post-1964 recordings, the influence of Ayler's sound is quite evident. Ayler, a native of Cleveland, OH, was known for his sheer, almost unsettling volume, his deep, march-like progressions, and the somewhat aggressive tone to his compositions. Though there are many fantastic albums within Aylers large catalog, the recording that catapulted him to international fame was the highly influential and unmatched masterpiece, 1964's Spiritual Unity.

One of the many ways in which Ayler is unique is that, unlike a vast majority of the other icons of jazz, Ayler did not spend much time as a member of any of the "great" big bands of the 1940's. Ayler spent much of his musical upbringing playing in smaller R&B groups, and hen switched to tenor saxophone whilst serving in the Army during World War II. Ayler's sound and style were simply too "out there" for artists and critics in the U.S., so after the war, he spent years in Scandinavia, working other other artists and honing his sound. The recordings he made during this time are some of the most raw and original jazz recordings ever, and it is still stunning to listen to Ayler trying to find his sound. Following five amazing, yet unsuccessful records, Ayler returned to the U.S. and assembled a trio for his first studio record with ESP. The musicians he found would be the perfect fit, as they both understood Ayler's style, and they provide the perfect backdrop for Ayler to work through his breathtaking compositions. Spiritual Unity is quick and highly concentrated, with only four tracks, running just under thirty minutes. The final track, "Ghosts: Second Variation" runs nearly a third of the record on its own, yet it is difficult to find a more stunning set of jazz compositions on a single album. It is Ayler's own brilliant playing, as well as the perfect fit he finds with his band that make this the record that brought Ayler the notoriety he so richly deserved.

The key to the trip on Spiritual Unity is that, though Ayler's sound is often called "abrupt" and "primitive," when the trio play together, it is clear that they are listening to one another, and playing off the smallest nuances of their individual styles. This can be attributed not only to the trio's discipline and dedication to the sound, but to their sheer talent as musicians. When Miles Davis needed a quick replacement due to the illness of bassist Ron Carter, he almost always turned to double-bass master, Gary Peacock. Though for the last three decades, he has played as part of the amazing "Standards Trio," it is very much his work with Ayler that remains the key to his musical credentials. Throughout Spiritual Unity, Peacock's tone is absolutely fantastic, and he flows through fantastic patterns and solos around Ayler's improvisations. Sunny Murray is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of the entire style of "free jazz" drumming. Murray is widely regarded as one of the first drummers to take the instrument from merely a "time keeper" to something that was as much a part of the musical texture as the other instruments. The combination of his innovations with Ayler's new sound and style moved music critic John Litweiler to say, "Sunny Murray and Albert Ayler did not merely break through bar lines, they abolished them altogether." Though all three musicians featured on Spiritual Unity would go on to garner iconic status in the annals of jazz history, it is Ayler himself, for his compositions and style, that would rise to the greatest height.

There are a number of aspect to the playing of Albert Ayler that make him stand out among the hordes of saxophone masters over the decades. Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of Ayler's style is the wide, somewhat sad strokes that he uses whilst painting his musical textures. Even during the high tempo parts of Spiritual Unity, such as the main improvisation on "Ghosts: First Variation," there remains a morose, almost tragic tone within Ayler's playing. It is very much in this that one can find the pain and depression that haunted Ayler his entire life, leading to his own suicide in 1970. Spiritual Unity also makes the case for having the most outlandish and strange vibrato effects ever recorded. Throughout the record, Ayler almost seems to use his saxophone as a lead vocalist, making it scream, and honk, and wail, as he does all he can to completely express his emotions through the horn. The "Spiritual" part of the title is also clear in this manner, as it often seems as if Ayler is trying to conjure spirits through his playing; and with song titles like "Ghosts" and "Spirits," the notion is further reinforced. Yet, when you strip down the music found on Spiritual Unity, the basic musical forms themselves are somewhat simple, and it is Ayler's interpretation, and more to the point, his power, that transform them into stunning musical masterpieces. This entire idea is a perfect reflection of Ayler's musical philosophy that the music "should be less about notes, and more about feelings." Finally finding his sound, Ayler's Spiritual Unity became a new model for playing, and the overall impact of the album is almost immeasurable.

Though he may not be as well known as other jazz icons, it is impossible to argue that Albert Ayler remains one of the most important figures in jazz history. Presenting a style and philosophy that was years beyond his peers, it is very much Ayler's work that pushed these same peers into their most famous musical periods. With Spiritual Unity, Ayler finally found a trio to help him properly convey his musical ideas, and the album yielded one of the true "jazz standards" in both variations of "Ghosts." Backed by music legends in bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, the trio melded perfectly, playing brilliantly with and around one another. Though Ayler would experiment with different groupings over his career, the freedom and chemistry of this trio would never be matched. With Peacock and Murray pushing Ayler to fully explore every music idea he finds, Ayler certainly had the musical talent around him to make a splash in the jazz scene. Instead, due to the diligence and sheer talent of all three musicians, Spiritual Unity would be a tidal wave and forever alter the landscape of jazz music. Though it still remains a bit of a "second tier" record within the list of "great jazz albums," this is only because Ayler himself is slightly less well known. Yet, Ayler's influence cannot be denied, and his 1964 release, Spiritual Unity, is, by far, one of the most phenomenal and important jazz recordings ever.

Standout tracks: "Ghosts (both variations)," "The Wizard," and "Spirits."

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