Thursday, October 07, 2004

Albert Ayler – Holy Ghost Discs One & Two (Revenant, 2004)

Holy Ghost is the long-awaited boxed set with ten discs worth of previously unreleased material by the legendary avant-garde saxophonist and composer Albert Ayler. Packed in a large plastic replica “spirit box” with a hard cover 200 page book and some other ephemera, it’s quite an artifact. It’s interesting that I can buy a ten disc boxed set with all this stuff for around $80, but the new Miles Davis set with less music and “stuff” costs over $100!

The music is in chronological order, so it kicks off with Ayler in Europe in 1962 playing with a very conventional group of musicians who were clearly not ready for the journey that he was starting to embark upon. It’s interesting to hear Ayler play with this relatively straight-ahead backing group on some standards, notably “Sonnymoon For Two” and “Summertime” during which he starts to hint at the dark wide tone he would use in future recordings. Disc one then moves on to a fascinating find, Ayler sitting in with Cecil Taylor’s group in Copenhagen. This was around the time Taylor recorded his famous album Nefertiti and Ayler fits right in with the group improvising well and truly holding his own.

Disc Two documents Ayler back in the U.S. with sympathetic backing form Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray and it marks the first appearance in this set of some of the themes that Ayler would play for the rest of his life. “Ghosts,” “The Wizard” and “Spirits” would all hearken back to an earlier time in African-American music when brass funeral bands and field-hollers were common throughout the south. Despite the relative simplicity of the themes, Ayler and company make the most of them, staying rooted in the gospel/spiritual ground, but using volume and texture to explore the length and breadth of the musical possibilities that these compositions allow. The sound quality is surprisingly good for these recordings, the subtlety of Murray’s rhythms and Peacock’s bass come through clearly, and the leader’s saxophone comes through like an air-raid siren.

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