I’ve been meaning to post this pioneering piece of music for some time but never seemed to get around to it until a comment yesterday reminded me that I’m probably not posting enough about Jazz these days. Albert Ayler was one of the true originals of the free jazz movement of the 1960s, and I think the album Spiritual Unity he made with Gary Peacock on bass and Sonny Murray on drums is the first record on which his radical ideas came fully to fruition, which is why I’ve chosen to post a track from it. His saxophone style was totally unique, with a rough broad vibrato and searing hard-edged tone contrasting dramatically with a superb command of the upper register and exhilirating speed of execution. His articulation is blurred in order to give the saxophone a more personal timbre, with inflections similar to a human voice, and he’s able to accomplish dramatic changes in mood, from a wild passion bordering on violence, to a deep sense of pathos or nostalgia. As is the case with other highly independent jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, you only have to hear one note to know immediately who’s playing.
This tune, the shorter of two versions on Spiritual Unity of an original composition by Albert Ayler called Ghosts, is a great example how he could make coherent what at first hearing sounds like disassociated bursts of sound. It involves remarkable improvised melodies based on short thematic lines designed to evoke unsophisticated folk music or nursery tunes. It may sound primitive on the surface, but it’s very complex underneath and creating this extraordinary sound world clearly required great technical mastery from Ayler and his supporting musicians, especially Gary Peacock, who plays wonderfully on this track.
Yet for all its brilliance, this record also hints at the dark clouds that were never far from Ayler’s horizon. Although critically acclaimed, his music never found favour with the public. He battled depression throughout the late 60s and, in 1970, at the age of only 34, he took his own life by jumping off a ferry into New York’s East River.