The Full Ayler Assault
Astriking feature of Albert Ayler's best live album, Live in Greenwich Village, is the applause between songs. Here he is, tearing out the drummer's guts with his saxophone, really reaching for a visceral communication that is truly new. And at the end of each piece, the audience responds in a cordial and completely noncommittal way. Nobody sounds revved to be hearing one of the masters of free-jazz anarchy—this is subscription-series applause.
Even the jazz faithful struggle with Ayler (1936–1970), one of the genre's most polarizing talents. On this wild ride of a record, his best studio work, the multi-instrumentalist scatters bleats and whinnies and lashing gales of sound in all directions. He might start with something familiar: "Ghosts," his impression of a gospel prayer meeting, is built on steady call-and-response. But as Ayler gets going, his R&B honking and discordant leaps from the top of the horn to the bottom push the music into unfriendly, destabilized territory. Pretty soon bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sonny Murray find themselves in a three-way musical fistfight, dodging Ayler's jabs and hooks while dishing out their own.
"It's not about notes anymore," Ayler told an interviewer in the early 1960s, drawing a distinction between his work and that of more traditional jazz musicians. "It's about feelings." And while those feelings can come across as harsh, Ayler's commitment is unassailable. Listen to Spiritual Unity for just a few minutes, and you can tell he's into the music with every ounce of breath. Chasing ideas that were just beyond the common musical vocabulary of the time, he played what he felt in the moment, and didn't stop to worry about how it might be going over. Which perhaps explains why his audiences were sometimes rendered speechless.
Released: 1965, ESP
Key Tracks: "Ghosts, First Version," "Spirits"
Catalog Choice: The Complete Live in Greenwich Village; Bells
Next Stop: Pharoah Sanders: Karma
After That: Don Cherry: Eternal Rhythm
Book Page: 30