Albert Ayler – Revelations: The complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings
(Elemental 5-LP or 4-CD set. 5990443. Album review by Jon Turney)
Three great saxophonists helped ease jazz out of the initially liberating but ultimately confining conventions of bebop. John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman’s contributions to this new-found, or reinvented, freedom are recognised as monumental, their influence acknowledged far and wide. The third, Albert Ayler, gets less attention. A small discography, much of it poor quality and unavailable for long spells, and a cruelly abbreviated career that meant few ever shared a bandstand with him, go some way to account for this. The stark simplicity of his actual compositions, usually fragmentary folk melodies, didn’t help. People often play such tunes now, but you need to be a very confident improviser to build something worthwhile out of them, and they give arrangers little to work with. You don’t hear Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra sets dedicated to Ayler.
This unexpected release puts all that in a welcome new light. Ayler played two concerts in France in July 1970, flying out from New York’s round of sparse club dates and occasional critical drubbings for a brief taste of star treatment and audience acclaim. Portions of those dates have been released before, but the discovery in 2015 of alternate, complete recordings of both by Radio France now allows access to far more, and with better sound.
This handsomely produced box set – released on vinyl for record store day and now available on CD – offers the two concerts in full, in performance order, along with 100 pages of photos, background, and commentary. It’s a fascinating and rewarding deep dive into all the diverse strands of Ayler’s music at the time, from entirely free improvisations to gospel testifying, folkish themes, marches, and soul ballads. The mix seemed incongruous then to some, but here they are held together by the force of Ayler’s personality, expressed most strikingly in his astonishing, mile-wide tenor saxophone timbre.
His cohorts help, mostly, to unite these disparate elements. Drummer Allen Blairman and bassist Steve Tintweiss, are adept at playing in the completely free style Ayler pioneered with Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock, but not averse to keeping time when called on. Pianist Call Cobbs, a close Ayler associate, was only present for the second concert (there was a day’s rest in between, in keeping with the lavish treatment the band enjoyed on their trip). He is more conventional, harmonically and rhythmically, but complements the leader’s more contemplative moments – yes, there are some – beautifully. And Ayler’s partner, Mary Parks, contributes on soprano sax and voice. On soprano she follows his style, with less inventive prowess, but when he picks up the same horn they raise the roof (it was a kind of geodesic marquee – very 1970s) together. Her voice is… serviceable: She’s not Jeanne Lee. But quite a few of the songs are hers, and she declaims the lyrics with a conviction that reinforces the impression that she and Ayler were kindred spirits.
The set lists are a mix of pieces from Ayler’s recent records for the Impulse label, also featuring writing and performing by Parks, and older pieces Ayler loved to play. So Music is the Healing Force of the Universe opens concert one and closes concert two, and we get around twenty in between, including stirring versions of Ghosts and Spirits Rejoice. Concert one, in Cobb’s absence, also features four completely spontaneous pieces, previously unheard, and there is another two days later – titled here as Revelations 1-5.
All feature mighty helpings of saxophone, with Ayler his ever-impassioned self, pressing on every melody as if he wants to blow it apart with the force of his emotion. Everyone plays well, but even though Parks is clearly a strong organising influence his voice still dominates. That is partly, as always, the sound he gets from the horn, screaming, crying and honking freely, but still gripping in his less fervid moments. But the generous proportions of the concerts, and these recordings, also allow a genuinely inventive improviser to shine.
Overall, these sets reveal a player consolidating all his efforts into what could surely have become a viable synthesis of all his influences and impulses, filtered through a singular artistic vision. It’s a poignant realisation, knowing of Ayler’s death just a few months later. But hearing the large crowd here egging him on conjures visions of an alternate time line in which Ayler the elder statesman tours festivals round the globe: I fancy I can almost glimpse him, Rollins like, playing the calypso-influenced Island Harvest as a perennial encore
As it is, this splendid package leaves us wondering again what might have been. Ambivalence can attend the torrent of archive reissues. There are plenty of box sets out there whose availability owes more to record companies’ desire to milk a few more dollars from old names than any possible argument that the players in question aren’t lavishly documented already. No such doubts in this case, though. There has already been an even more handsomely accoutred set of rare Ayler recordings – which came with a 200 page book. (That collection, Holy Ghost, is out of print but all 10 hours of music may be heard on Youtube.) But this less hefty production sheds new light on a player rarely given his due.
Casual summaries of Ayler’s abbreviated career still tend to conclude that it ended with regrettable sessions where he was mired in R&B rhythm sections foisted on him by a cloth-eared record company. Valerie Wilmer, whose account of Ayler’s work in As Serious as Your Life remains perhaps the best, avoided that trap. The expanded and refined version of these triumphant European concerts shows convincingly how judicious her verdict on the original release of lower-fi selections was back in 1977. “Gentler than the rawest offerings… and less majestic than the stark themes of Love Cry, it is the declaration of an artist who has considered all the possibilities, and now offers this as a refined statement of his musical self.” Half a century and more after this music was captured, we can hear more clearly that this is true.
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