1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
Albert Ayler is the fourth free jazz musician mentioned in the “A” chapter of 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. As my previous entries on Muhal Richard Abrams and Air drew complaints about the definition of “free” jazz, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about before we look at Ayler’s “Spiritual Unity.” The major complaint was that the songs by the previous artists featured opened with clearly organized themes. This is true, but the bridge is more relevant: Every musician is improvising on their respective instruments. When every member is improvising, it’s free jazz. Simple as that. The amount of melody or harmony is irrelevant.
Just as Abrams and especially Air opened with organized themes, the Albert Ayler trio opens its songs the same way. “Spiritual Unity” has only four tracks, two of which are versions of Ayler’s most renowned tune, “Ghosts.” The album opener is “First Variation” of “Ghosts,” and the closing track is “Second Variation.” The two are nearly 90 percent different. Even the opening riff is played with a different tone between the two songs. The bridges allow Ayler, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray to individualize to the utmost degree.
Even more unique than the “Ghosts” from each other is Ayler’s style of saxophone playing. Ayler used thick reeds (or mouthpieces) to create a “dirtier” timbre than that of cleaner players like Branford Marsalis. Ayler’s use of vibrato (a pulse of pitch change) adds to the rough feel. Ayler changes pitch both quickly and dramatically, making it even more striking. At times, he blares abrasive single notes that sound, with respect, like the braying of a donkey. The abrasiveness of Ayler’s style and tone might make this a little tougher to listen to than artists with a cleaner sound, but for those looking for a distinct sound will be pleased.
Despite the similar song titles (“Ghosts,” “The Wizard” and “Spirits”), there isn’t an overriding theme. Ayler plays in a more subdued manner on “Spirits,” and Murray’s offbeat rhythms on the cymbals illustrate a feeling of poltergeists in the house.
Ayler’s style would earn him a fan in John Coltrane, but his unique sound never caught the same adoration from a widespread audience. It’s about time that he started getting some.
INTERESTING FACT: Ayler committed suicide by drowning in 1970 in New York City. It is believed that he jumped overboard on a ferry to Liberty Island, but Ayler’s body was not found until 20 days later in the East River. The mystery behind his death led to a cult fascination, literally and figuratively. Some propose that he was possessed by tormented spirits, which also inspired his many songs named after occult-based creatures.