Holy Ghost

Revenant Records returns with free-jazz specter Albert Ayler

Holy Ghost

"Revenant Records tends to focus its energies on artists that we're passionate about, but whose story is somewhat elusive. Charley Patton. Dock Boggs. Charlie Feathers. Captain Beefheart. Harry Smith. Even our co-founder, John Fahey. Albert Ayler's story hits that same nerve: child prodigy, teenage member of little Walter's band, 'Little Bird' of Cleveland, featured U.S. Army band soloist ultimately setting out to forget everything he knew about how to properly play the sax so he could channel symphonies to God out of his horn.

"He was fascinated by the music of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, yet despite repeated rejection from not only the audience, but from other musicians, Ayler had such a fully formed and unshakeable faith in the value of his musical statement that what he borrowed from Coleman and Coltrane was not a musical blueprint, but the fundamental moral inspiration to make music his own way. Why was this golf champion from Cleveland driven to make musical statements still being argued about and retaining genuine power to shock? Holy Ghost is our attempt at reckoning Ayler's story."

So says Austin's Dean Blackwood, the man behind Revenant Records. After receiving much favorable comment with 2001's Grammy-winning 7-CD Charley Patton box set ("Dead Man Blues," Music, October 26, 2001), Revenant and Blackwood have fielded another winner in their handsome new Albert Ayler compilation. Holy Ghost is a 9-CD overview of Ayler's music, including interviews and a bonus CD on which Ayler performs two selections while a member of the U.S. Army band in 1960. Also included is a 210-page book commenting on Ayler's life and music.

Ayler was among the most influential of all free jazzmen, marking the styles of not only young musicians but established stars, most notably Coltrane. He didn't live long (1936-1970) or record much, so the content of Holy Ghost adds significantly to his relatively meager discography. Some of the music here was recorded live using primitive equipment, its fidelity leaving much to be desired. Thank heaven we have it in any condition. Ayler's music remains controversial, and the more of it we have, the better we can evaluate and enjoy it.

Ayler began playing alto sax while still a child, taught by his saxophonist father. Gospel music had a profound impact on both of them. His mother was very active in the church. By his midteens, Ayler was sitting in and jamming at local clubs. Little Walter Jacobs heard him there and was impressed enough to take him on tour. Ayler also played with Lloyd Price for a short time, and after leaving high school, got into the local R&B scene. I'm from Cleveland and I knew a guy who used to jam with Ayler as a high schooler. I asked him if Ayler had a good knowledge of chord changes.

"He seemed to have contempt for the changes," I was told.

Looking to enlarge his experience, he joined the army and was shipped overseas, based in Orleans, France, where he played tenor saxophone in the Army's 76th AG band, performing music ranging from semiclassical to big band swing. At this time, he was interested in the music of jazz innovators, including Coleman, Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. After being discharged in 1961, Ayler played in Europe for a while, as his wild, advanced playing was often ridiculed by American jazzmen. He met with resistance from European jazzmen, too, but found others there that had a positive take on what he was trying to do.

The first tracks on Holy Ghost are by a Finnish group in 1962 that employed some well-known themes, Rollins' "Sonnymoon for Two," and standards "Summertime" and "On Green Dolphin Street." Guitarist Herbert Katz leads the group, which also includes a fine boppish pianist, Teuvo Suojarvi. Suojarvi follows the chord progressions meticulously, but Ayler departs from them, and sometimes plays in other keys than the pianist. He doesn't play a flood of notes and scream often in the upper register, which soon became his trademarks, but his solos, despite their unorthodoxy, are put together logically, and I can always tell where he's in the chorus. Treading that line steadily is not easy.

We hear him later in 1962 as a member of Cecil Taylor's avant-garde band. His impassioned work is what came to be expected of him later. Note that, like Taylor and unlike Coleman in the early Sixties, Ayler didn't try to swing.

The first two discs feature Ayler's appearances with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sonny Murray in June 1964, and in September of that year, sessions with Peacock, Murray, and trumpeter Don Cherry, Coleman's close collaborator. Here we have characteristic and mature performances by Ayler. In evidence are his honks, above-the-normal-upper-register screams and squeals, lines played so fast they seem to be a blur of notes and a huge vibrato. His original compositions are also unique, so archaic sounding that they seem modern. The influence of both church and martial music is apparent in them.

The third and fourth CDs of Holy Ghost have Ayler back in Cleveland for a date at La Cave, normally a folk club, in April 1966. Clevelander and Firesign Theatre member Peter Bergman had something to do with booking and/or promoting the appearance. Ayler's got a new lineup here: His brother Donald, who'd only been playing trumpet since 1963, appears on that instrument. Mutawef Shaheed plays bass and Ronald Shannon Jackson is on drums. Sitting in with Ayler for one set is tenorman Frank Wright, one of Ayler's first disciples and a Clevelander as well. Classical Dutch violinist Michel Samson went down to see about sitting in and found himself made a regular touring member of the group. Samson is an inexperienced and tentative soloist, but adds an unusual color to the band.

Don Ayler sounds strong in the ensembles and is an aggressive soloist, but his work is repetitive. Still, it provides a nice contrast with Albert's sound. Donald has a blunt, straightforward attack, a solid, compact tone, and likes to play flurries of notes, which are, unfortunately, too similar to one another. Albert, for his part, is in great form throughout. Note that when playing at slow speeds how eerily heartfelt his work is. Sometimes the playing of the ensemble is so down-home it's reminiscent of a Salvation Army band.

The sides cut in Berlin and Rotterdam on disc five were recorded in November 1966, with the Ayler brothers, Samson, bassist Bill Folwell, and drummer Beaver Harris. These pieces have much more ensemble playing and are more highly arranged than previous Ayler performances. The reason given for this by the annotator is that Donald Ayler had so little experience on trumpet that the band's book had to be reshaped to "accommodate the members' relative skill levels." In any event, we hear a montage of familiar themes and not much solo improvisation.

Disc six (1967-1968) contains three tracks cut at the Newport Jazz Festival, a selection from John Coltrane's funeral, a long Pharoah Sanders track with Ayler, and an Ayler instrumental quartet augmented by singers Mary Maria Parks and Vivian Bostic. There's also too much ensemble work on the Newport and Coltrane funeral tracks, although Ayler plays with a great deal of passion on them. The Sanders selection contains exciting improvising, both solo and collective. Trumpeter Chris Capers turns in burning work here.

In August 1968, Ayler made what, for him, were some unusual recordings for Impulse!, with a piano, bass, and drums rhythm section, which were demos for his New Grass LP, regarded by a number of observers as an attempt to expand his audience to pop fans. The demos were not used on the LP, which producer Bob Thiele turned into far more of a sell-out work than Ayler envisioned. One demo is a blues, with the bassist employing a walking beat. Ayler uses a raspy tone, but adheres to the form and turns in idea-filled solo work. Following this is a selection where he preaches a sermon, and two songs written by Ayler and his collaborator Mary Maria Parks. The latter three tracks are aesthetically insubstantial, except for Ayler's tenor playing on "Thank God for Women" and "New Ghosts."

The seventh CD begins with two tracks by Donald Ayler's group, including Albert, that are so poorly recorded they're practically indecipherable. The remaining tracks feature Albert with a rhythm section in 1970. He sounds great; he's added to his repertoire of licks and devices while retaining all his virtues. His playing is fiery, and sometimes thoughtful as well. At that point in his career, shortly before his death, he was a learning, growing musician who might've become even greater than he was. He must've realized that his amazing acrobatics in the upper register and speed, while mind-boggling, were not enough to sustain him through an entire career by themselves. There is a limit to how fast and high listeners can enjoy music. Ayler probably knew he had to broaden his vocabulary.

The remaining two CDs contain interviews with Ayler, during which he recounts his past history and talks about what he's currently trying to accomplish. He's a soft-spoken and surprisingly cheerful and tolerant interviewee whose comments will significantly flesh out interested listeners' knowledge of him. If the preceding seven discs of Holy Ghost haven't already accomplished just that. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Albert Ayler
Apeman Hop
Apeman Hop
The year in music 2004

Raoul Hernandez, Jan. 7, 2005

More by Harvey Pekar
Hey, Emily
Hey, Emily

Aug. 8, 2008

Better Git It in Your Soul
Better Git It in Your Soul
Charles Mingus Among Us

June 16, 2006


Revenant Records, Dean Blackwell, Albert Ayler, Holy Ghost, free jazz, Charley Patton

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle