Monday, 21 August 2017

Albert Ayler : Witches And Devils

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  • Published on Wednesday, 27 November 2013 15:04
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Witches & Devils - 11.55
Spirits - 6.35
Holy, Holy - 11.00
Saints - 6.05

Like all outstanding players, Albert Ayler’s tone is instantly recognizable. He used a thick plastic reed and played with an embouchure that demanded considerable pressure. At times he whined like a Texas blues guitarist, shouted like a Joe Turner or honked like an exaggerated Lester Young, but at all times, the sound he made was the very essence of jazz. His was a Black Noise, beautiful rather than pretty and with an emotional range that stretched from tenderness to brutality. This album was an important one for Ayler. Previous record dates had found him with willing but not always competent European musicians. Here you hear him, for the first time on record, with men of equal stature. Ayler had played with Cecil Taylor on odd gigs in Scandinavia during 1962 and actually recorded with him the following year. That recording, as yet unissued, featured Henry Grimes and Sonny Murray, who are heard here. The bass duties are shared by Grimes and Earle Henderson but it is Sonny Murray who makes the most telling rhythmic contribution to the group. His urgent and frequently jagged line proves an ideal contrast to Ayler’s relaxed delivery. This is particularly true on the slower “Witches Devils” where he drums with imagination and no little attention to detail. Norman Howard is from Ayler’s home town, Cleveland, Ohio and had worked with him there. Although he is melodically less ambitious than Ayler, he makes telling use of note displacement to add drama the effect of his playing. Albert Ayler belonged loosely to the Sonny Rollins’ school of saxophonists and was, inevitably, a melodist. Even more than Rollins, he made use of a wide and often exaggerated vibrato. This occasionally gave his music a feeling of bathos which it did not in reality contain. At the hard core of his music was an extremely creative mind. His solos were invariably developed from their thematic starting points, rather than reconstructed. The four titles on this record are typical in that the starting time remains germaine to the total improvisation even when he strays from it, often to some considerable musical distance. Ayler was a free player, in that his line did not have the continuity that might be found in a Rollins solo. He did, however, return constantly to the original melodic area for resuscitation when necessary. The material used on this album is highly varied. “Witches and Devils” is in the spirit of the Ornette Coleman dirges and allows Ayler to pay attention to variations of timbre while fashioning a moaning and soulful solo. Howard’s contribution is less assured, although similarly emotional. “Spirits” is not the tune of the same title, recorded on his next album, “Spiritual Unity.” It features a good solo by Ayler in which the saxophonist moves into the upper register without surrendering his sense of relaxation. “Holy, Holy,” recorded elsewhere as “The Wizard,” is the outstanding number. Ayler’s improvisation is brilliantly conceived. Its dynamics are well controlled and it is motivated by a good basic melody. It also shows how well Ayler can construct a continuous solo without reference to each thematic contour. This track closes with a very shapely contrapuntal passage in which Howard and Ayler dovetail to great effect. “Saints” is a highly evocative slow piece and Ayler’s moving line tends to overpower Howard. In one way the tenor’s wide vibrato lends an almost surrealistic quality, although in another you are reminded of performances like Johnny Dodd’s “Too Tight” or George Lewis’ “Burgundy Street Blues.” That the violent, painful and even excessive has as much right to be used in artistic expression as has the gentle and comforting was a realization that forced itself into the aesthetic and creative evolution of jazz in the sixties. Ayler was a central figure in this development. He used the word “strong” often when talking about his music yet, as we hear on “Saints,” he could be gentle. He used freedom only as much as it suited his style. It was never the merely licentious desire to do anything at any time. His inherent sense of structure enjoined a discipline on his work that gave it meaning and depth, while his emotional projection breathed into it the very spirit of jazz. Ayler was intrigued by the characteristic sound produced by his instrument and he told Robert Osterman of The National Observer that “You have really to play your instrument to escape from notes to sound. You really have to play. No kidding around.” There was certainly no flippancy in Albert Ayler’s approach to jazz and, at the time of his death by drowning in December, 1970, he was still examining new avenues of expression. Fortunately, he left behind records like this to document his career and to emphasize his importance to the mainstream of jazz history. Barry McRae Recorded at Atlantic Studios on February 24, 1964 Musicians: Albert Ayler (Tenor Saxophone), Norman Howard (Trumpet), Henry Grimes (Bass a), Earle Henderson (Bass b), Sonny Murrary (Drums) Song Listing: Witches and Devils 11.55, Spirits 6.35, Holy, Holy 11.00, Saints 6.05

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