Monday, June 28, 2010
ALBERT AYLER TRIO: Spiritual Unity
ESP-Disk was named for founder Bernard Stollman’s interest in Esperanto, a universal language designed to unify mankind in peace and understanding. The label’s original aim was to release recordings of songs and spoken-word projects in this new language, but today ESP-Disk is best known for releasing the music of free-jazz giants like Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra.
It’s fitting, then, that the label’s story starts with this 29-minute fireball recorded in one quick summer session in 1964. LBJ had just signed the Civil Rights act into law, Barry Goldwater was on the cover of TIME magazine, and A Hard Day’s Night had just opened in theaters. The musicians arrived, microphones were set up, and this half-hour of music was apparently recorded in a half-hour. No outtakes, no overdubs. Regarding Ayler’s trio, a catalogue description included in the liner notes of other ESP releases reads “American youths brainwashed by the big hype of plastic fantastic rockshuck are only now beginning to recognize the quiet giants of world music among whom stand these three.”
Yes, the kids thought the Beatles were pretty cool until this hoarse horse of a saxophone wail obliterated all that “Ticket to Ride” nonsense. By 1965, Beatlemania had totally tanked and Ayler-fever was sweeping the nation. Nary a sock-hop could be heard that didn’t include a partner-dance to Sunny Murray’s free-time drums, heard on this recording in crazed monaural sound, and bassist Gary Peacock was the new teen-heartthrob, adorning the bedroom walls of a million swooning girls.
I know. That didn’t happen. But while the Beatles brand is fused to videogames and lunchboxes and all varieties of received nostalgia, Spiritual Unity enjoys a sleeper-hit, classic-status reputation to this day. It’s easy to see why. This record has huge, brassy balls.
It’s not what they do, it’s what they DON’T do. Chords? No. Time signatures? Barely. Rules? Of course not. Look at your copy of any ESP-Disk release and you should see the label's motto printed on it somewhere: “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk.” Imagine the meeting between Ayler’s trio and a three-piece suit at Major-Label headquarters. “Fellas, we want to give the kids something to dance to, can you play something NICE for a change?”
Thankfully, that didn’t happen either. With total creative freedom, these three “quiet giants” made an incredible racket, walking a duckling/swan tightrope in boiling tension for a relentless 29 minutes. That’s a short running time, but I’m not sure our faint little hearts could withstand much more than that. The manic clatter never lets up and it’s an exhausting listen in the best possible way. Whenever I hear this record I feel like I've been splattered in the sweat pouring off of these three. Ayler’s caterwaul is such odd, fractured beauty as he speaks in tongues with his trembling vibrato and his kamikaze phrasing spirals to abrupt stops. When he lays out, the spotlight falls on Peacock’s prickley audiopuncture bass, darting around in spasms and seizures. All the while, Murray’s drums ramble in paragraphs without pattern or meter. I suppose “Spirits” is this trio’s version of a romantic serenade but I don’t recommend you play it on a first date, unless you’re trying to scare away timid suitors.
Don’t be put off by all this iconoclasm. While the Ayler Trio operates with very little rhythmic structure or conventional harmony, there’s always something to latch on to. The singsongy theme that introduces “Ghosts” (included in two different “variations”) sets the right tone; playful and energetic. You’re not going to be able to sing the stuff in between from memory (though your attempts to do so would be a great submission to Youtube) but give this a chance, rock-and-rollers, and hear that ecstatic energy you dig so much pushed through a warped prism of total musical freedom. That jubilance is the attraction. This isn’t austere, alienating music for graduates of the abrasion-endurance-test school of music listening. This is genuinely fun! These guys found their new language, and it’s not Esperanto - it’s AYLER.
Just a couple of years after this debut, John Coltrane got Ayler signed to the Impulse! label, even including him on Ascension alongside people like Pharoah Sanders and John Tchicai. In the late 1960s, Ayler put out some quickly-dated, accessible records that just weren’t EXTREME enough for his purist fanbase, and by 1970, he was dead (suicide, apparently.) The candle that burns twice as bright… Thankfully, Ayler left behind a body of work that demonstrates the kind of fearless music that is made when “the artist alone decides” and the creative process is not tethered by market concerns and “plastic fantastic” hype.