Saturday, January 1, 2011

January 1: Albert Ayler, "Ghosts"

Artist: Albert Ayler
Song: "Ghosts"
Album: Spiritual Unity
Year: 1964

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (First Variation) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Second Variation) (will open in new tab)

Though many terms are often misused, there is perhaps no title that is given more freely, and more incorrectly than when an artist is referred to as "avant."  In most cases, such a title is given to any performer whose sound goes against the grain in even the slightest bit, though it should be reserved for the few that truly personify the idea.  While there are a handful of examples of the avant style within the rock genres, it is far easier to spot within the world of jazz.  Yet even within jazz music, there are almost "levels" of avant that one can find, and one can easily make the case that far off in his own category, representing the very essence of the term "avant jazz" is Cleveland, Ohio's own Albert Ayler.  Call his sound "free jazz" or "avant jazz," but whatever one uses to describe his unique sound, that instantly becomes a term by which no other artist can be categorized due to the fact that Ayler's sound is so impossible to define or duplicate.  Leaving all notions of structure or modes behind, Ayler pushed the boundaries on "what" could be considered jazz music, reaching his high-point with his monumental 1964 album, Spiritual Unity.  Remaining to day "the" essential jazz recording for those who wish to understand "free jazz," the complete genius of Albert Ayler can be experienced in the two variations on his song "Ghosts" that bookend this landmark recording.

The main difference that sets all of Spiritual Unity apart from the rest of Ayler's work is the fact that on this album, he has clearly found a pair of musicians who see and understand music in the same way that he does.  Though one may assume that this is not difficult to find, the fact of the matter is, there were virtually no other musicians in history that understood Ayler's approach to his compositions, and drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Gary Peacock prove to be just what he needed to fully achieve his musical vision.  Throughout both versions of "Ghosts," the trio take amazing liberties in how they play, often sounding as if they are each playing to a different song.  Though at times, it may seem as if the three musicians are not even in the same room, when one listens to the more delicate nuances of the song, it is stunning to hear how "in sync" they are with one another, as they are able to add fills and harmonies to one anothers' parts seemingly out of nowhere.  It is this fact alone that serves as a testament to the unparalleled level of talent within the trio.  Furthermore, Murray utilizes his drum kit in a manner that was rarely done at the time, as he makes full use of hi cymbals, often neglecting the more traditional styles of playing.  With Peacock pounding out an almost odd groove on his bass, these two prove to be a formidable pair for Ayler's vision, and it is their inclusion on the track that makes "Ghosts" so extraordinary.

Yet as great as the trio sound throughout both variations of "Ghosts," there is not a moment on either that the focus moves from the phenomenal, visionary performance of Albert Ayler.  Though there were many great saxophone players during that time, none come close to the presence or style of playing that Ayler shows here, and it is much the reason he remains such a respected, yet somewhat controversial player.  Ayler himself perhaps best summed up his sound and approach when he famously stated that he felt music was far more about feeling than it was actual notes, and this can be clearly and easily understood in both variations of "Ghosts."  Especially during the first variation of the song, Ayler seems to be playing with reckless abandon, and the actual "form" of the song is difficult to find once the group is out of the first movement.  However, it is this scattered, almost wild sound that makes the song so unforgettable, and with a closer listen, the true genius of Ayler's playing becomes clear.  There are many points on both variations where Ayler seems to be taking his musical direction from some other-worldly source, and this is far more present on the second variation, and completely defines the idea of letting music take the player where it wants.  Through both variations on "Ghosts," Albert Ayler pushes the limits on what "was" jazz, and though many attempted to follow his lead, none could even come close to the revolutionary performance he gives here.

While in the case of nearly every great jazz album, the focus comes down to the work of the band leader, throughout both variations of "Ghosts," it is clear that the key to the performances is the fact that all three musicians share the same musical vision, and they are able to push one another to greater heights.  Though Albert Ayler is without question leading this charge, without Murray and Peacock playing behind him, there is no question his vision would not have been fully realized.  It is with this in mind that one can point to the trio as one of the most important groupings in the development of jazz music, and also see all of Spiritual Unity as one of the most significant musical achievements in all of history.  The way in which the three players refuse to conform to any musical norms of the time is nothing short of stunning, as they blaze a completely new path for jazz that pushed the boundaries more than any other artist had previously done.  It is this complete effort by the group that makes the second half of the albums' title so fitting, and the way in which each player follows the music in their soul more than on the page is what defines the other half of Spiritual Unity.  Though when it was first released, many did not quite "get" Ayler's musical approach, as the years passed, most players and critics were able to understand his concept of playing a feeling as opposed to a note, and it is his perfect deployment of this idea that makes Albert Ayler's 1964 variations on his song "Ghosts" such essential parts of the development of all of jazz music.

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